Modern adulthood is a place with no maps. Until the late 20th century, there was no concept of midlife, because there just wasn’t enough time in between climbing out of adolescence and dying. In 1900, average life expectancy was around 47 years. This differed little from human experience throughout the ages. The ancient Pueblos who inhabited the caves and canyons of our southwestern deserts in AD 750 had a life expectancy of about 40 years. Yale historian John Demos’s recently published lectures on colonial times suggest there were then only two way stations in the adult life of a man: manhood and old age. Today the average U.S. life span is 77 years. So for most of human history, people died around what we consider midlife. Recent generations, especially those born since 1946, are the first humans to venture into this new adulthood in large numbers.
Over the past decade, I have designed and led an unusual program at the Harvard Business School called Odyssey: School for the Second Half of Life. Men and women from all over the world between the ages of 40 and 65 engage in an intensive monthlong experience that provides the tools and understanding to make and sustain change at midlife. The essence of Odyssey is to help each traveler devise a compass for this new journey without maps. As one Odyssey friend put it, “I knew what my kids were supposed to be doing at three or six months, but what am I supposed to be doing at 50?”
The new adulthood means a longer life, but concealed inside this quantitative change is the possibility of a qualitative one — the emergence of a different mentality from the one that got us to midlife in the first place. This new new adulthood is about becoming a truly unique individual who cannot be reduced to a role or a Rolodex, a net worth or a network — a person who is more than the sum of his or her own parts, more than achievements and the expectations of others, more than titles, statuses, and all the glittering prizes. As one man put it, “Without my business card, I am ‘just John.’ Do I have the courage to be ‘just John’?” For people moving into this new mentality, established authority loses its aura in favor of internally derived principles and values. Subjective meaning becomes more important than received tradition or institutional dictates. This new capacity to be rooted in one’s own sense of self is linked to an interest in others that goes beyond the packaging. Relationships develop more authenticity with a deepened propensity for empathy, dialogue, and real connection.
Many people who come to Odyssey are astonished to learn that just because they are grown-ups doesn’t mean they are finished growing. But here’s the kicker: Qualitative change in adulthood isn’t inevitable. Paradoxically, it tends to follow pain. The first half of life is about compulsion; the second half is about choice. Nature compels physical and cognitive maturation through early adulthood. Then the need to earn a place in society kicks in: education, career, family, status, recognition, and achievement. Once those are accomplished, it used to be time to die. Now more decades stretch ahead. Some people, to be sure, simply continue their youthful MO, without much reflection. But for many, the old incentives no longer bite. They find themselves feeling uneasy. Sometimes they are in real pain. The questions I hear reflect the yearning and fear that comes with shedding old skin. “Is this all there is?” “Why don’t I feel the passion and energy I once did?” “Will the 1,300 weeks I have left just be a rehash?” Sometimes events such as death, illness, divorce, failure, or betrayal trigger discontent.
It’s natural to grieve for a life that once felt right but no longer seems to make sense. For those who don’t run and hide, exploring the new questions gradually leads to the realization that they have choices. The new awareness of “I can take my life in my own hands” is exhilarating. For some people, this leads to dramatic internal as well as external change — like the banker who now runs a vineyard, tilling and planting his own fields, or the corporate lawyer who gave up his lucrative partnership to go into the cattle business with his son. But even without dramatic external change, there is often subtle but profound internal change. People feel a renewed zest for life.
In 1900, there were 13 million people in the United States over the age of 45. Now there are nearly 100 million. Companies see markets to carve up, as they peddle skin creams, fitness equipment, and vitamins. Governments see a massive headache of rising health costs and a bankrupt Social Security. But I see a nation of fellow pilgrims, embarking on a whole new adventure in being human.