Act Your Age
What should our goals be at different stages of life. Here we discuss a few ways to understand our changing priorities as we age.
I remember the conversation vividly, even though it was a long time ago. We were sitting in an awful suburban cafe, in a crowded, noisy shopping mall. I was meeting someone I knew both socially and professionally, the husband of one of my wife’s friends and was expecting a polite, amicable conversation. What I got was one of the most bizarre, revealing and memorable thirty minutes of my life.
Almost straight away, my acquaintance started saying he and his wife couldn’t socialise with us because they were at a “more advanced stage of life.” He went on to explain that since they had kids and we didn’t and since he was more advanced in his career than me, socialising with us was “awkward” for them. I could have argued that out of all of us, my wife was the most successful, in terms of career, or that we expected to have kids, or that he and I were on very different career paths, but trying to reason with him would have been a futile exercise.
It’s a conversation I remember from time to time, partly because it was so ironically absurd, but also because the question of how one ought to behave, at each stage of life, keeps coming up and again and again. I’m often thinking about what experiences I want for my daughter in her teens, regularly having career-related conversations with peers in their 20s and 30s, and watching people my age and older, face the challenges of later midlife and beyond.
That cafe conversation has always made me cautious about trying to present clear cut answers to all this. My life isn’t and shouldn’t be a template for anyone else. But, there are lessons to be learned, lots of research ageing ageing to digest and a few things, rough guideposts if you will, that I’d like to share.
Teens – Keep Your Horizons Open
The common line is your teens are a time to experiment and enjoy the freedom you will not have in later life. But, this might be changing as social media is apt to keep all our teenage mistakes alive, digitally, for the rest of our lives (especially with video and photos). Moreover, many of the life-defining decisions my grandparent’s generation made in their teens (what career, who to marry, where to live) are now deferred into people’s twenties and even thirties.
In fact, being a teenager today might be more about experiencing (or resisting) a narrowing of horizons. The internet is making a lot of teens more tribal, with narrower, rather than broader tastes in music, film and the arts. And, while many key decisions in life are being deferred, prejudices and attitudes are sometimes being hardened earlier, especially in countries where the effects of globalisation are being strongly resisted.
So, the teenage years shouldn’t just be a time to experiment with identity and freedom, but also with ideas. It’s a time to learn how to make friends, but also, how to work and collaborate with people who we maybe don’t get along with that well, or perhaps don’t even understand. It’s a time to keep the candle of cultural curiosity alight, before the 24/7 news cycle, internet content farms like BuzzFeed and the workplace water cooler try to snuff it out.
Twenties – Own Your Destiny
It’s probably 40 years now since the notion of one’s twenties being the age of settling down, getting married, committing to a career, buying a home, stopped being the standard for many people. If anything one’s mid to late twenties are typically a time of change and transition.
Most folks I know had a major upheaval in their twenties; a change of career, a relationship failure, a move to a different city or country and maybe all three! Rather than settling down and compromising, your twenties are a fantastic opportunity to take charge of the shape of your life. Instead of complaining about what your parents or society didn’t give you, or how much your job sucks, your twenties are the time to try something different, maybe start your own business, go back to study, live somewhere else and generally see if the grass really is greener.
Thirties – Work Your Arse Off
If the TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s had any truth to them at all, then lots of folks dreamt of this stage of life as being about enjoying the fruits of good choices, buying a house in a nice neighbourhood and raising a family, with plenty of time on weekends to relax with the kids, go fishing, or inviting the neighbours over to socialise.
I’m not sure how true that ever was. When I was a kid a lot of my friend’s parents worked plenty of overtime or had a second job (or two), just to make ends meet and pay the mortgage. Since then household debt has skyrocketed in many countries and parents spend more and more each year just trying to keep up with the rising cost of education and all the “essentials” of their kid’s lives (from internet and computers, to cable TV and mobile phones).
It’s a sobering reality, but your 30s are the time in your life to work your arse off. It’s also the time in life when you have both the motivation and the physical stamina to put in long hours. Everyone I’ve meet who drifted through their 30s is mired in regret to some level. Everyone I know who is successful at a later stage in their life made sacrifices in their 30s. They also made their mark, refined their style, grew their network, expanded their horizons and continued to learn and grow.
Forties – Accept Leadership With Grace
The payoff years, as I once heard a banker describe them. The idea was your 40s are the time to have a “boss” job, earn big bonuses and blow it all on expensive meals, fast cars and any other of life’s pursuits that take your fancy.
Except that doing this means you are basically cashing your chips while only halfway through your life and more poignantly, only a third of the way through your adulthood!
Every year that passes after your 40th birthday you feel different and society treats you differently. A lot of the moves that made you seem cool, sexy and intriguing when you were in your twenties now make you look weird and creepy. You can still be those things, but you need to learn to express then in a different, often lighter way. At this age the opportunities really belong to those who can bring lightness and calm into situations, who can reduce complexity and fear and who know when to show their wisdom and when to display their humility.
Fifties – Accept Age With Grace
The cliches about mid-life crises are there for a reason. There are lessons to be learnt in our 40s and those who don’t or won’t learn them can be an ugly spectacle. But, there’s often a positive upside to this later life rebelliousness, that we frequently miss. Particularly since this stage of life is often one of increased anxiety about work, life and financial security.
We tend to assume that many musicians produce their best work early on in their career, when they are young, rebellious and full of fresh ideas. The pop music industry certainly does a lot to perpetuate this myth. But, when we look more closely at the work artists produce and the critical reception it receives, it’s clear many musicians (and creatives in other fields) really come back to life in their 50s.
There’s something here to aspire to; the kind of work someone can make when their skills are at a high level, when they have experience, when they are free from some of the constraints of earlier life (like raising kinds) and when they no longer have anything to prove, to themselves or to others. The real kind of “making it” isn’t putting your feet up and retiring early, it’s being able to do the work you love, the way you want, without having to justify yourself anymore.
Sixties – Work With Freedom
Retirement in your 60s, with a generous pension, was a hard won privilege in many industrialised countries during the 20th century. But, we are seeing that whittled away as countries raise the retirement age and global economic crises threaten savings and pension plans.
As more people work in knowledge and creative industries and the startup culture continues to expand, the notion that one should retire at 60 or 65 will also become something we increasingly should reconsider. We don’t assume that a painter, composer or writer should retire at age 60. In fact we often hope they don’t! So, why should a coder, graphic designer or app developer be planning to retire at the same age?
Watch people in their sixties work, especially those who love and find satisfaction in what they do and you’ll often see a tremendous amount of clarity in their actions. They’ve figured out what matters and what doesn’t and they may have a deep intuition about patterns and processes, or human nature. Soon we may start to see this decade of our lives as one of the most productive and free of our careers.
Seventies – Be An Example
Twenty or thirty years ago it was common in many developed countries to see people in their seventies sequestered into retirement homes and almost completely removed from society. But, as medical treatments for the elder have improved and we have learnt more about the communities around the world where people actively live to an old age, things have changed.
Living here in Japan, it is not uncommon to see folks well into their seventies running local businesses, shops and eateries. The documentary, Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, made a lot of people aware of this. Everywhere I go, from supermarket, to cinema to the Sumo, I see sprightly old folks, out and about, enjoying life. I love visiting Tokyo’s parks, especially in Autumn and Spring and seeing lots of older people socialising and walking and also, painting and making photographs. And, it’s common during the week, to see plenty of folks frequenting arts and crafts stores, electrical supply stores and of course, hobby shops.
There’s something inspiring about folks in this age group (and older) enjoying and living life to the full. They have a huge role to play in families and also in society, passing on experience and also being a connection to our cultural past, to ways of living we, in our rush to embrace everything new and shiny, may have forgotten.
Eighties – Bring The World In Close
Age will, eventually, catch up with all of us. Stamina and strength will fade, but often long before the mind does. As we understand ageing more, we also understand the role that maintaining a good diet, appropriate daily exercise and the place of work and relational commitments in sustaining a healthy older life.
But, if travel and long hours are not possible, there is still a lot a person of this age can do. People in this age group can be a powerful glue in families and in social groups or movements in which they have worked. They can bring people together as they bring the world in close, within their reach. This can be an age of stories, of memories and recollections, a time not just for memories, but also for meaning, for reminding those of us looking forward to this age, of the precious value of life.
Of course, there’s absolutely no reason why any of this should be taken as a hard and fast set of “rules.” In a lot of ways I’m thinking aloud here and sharing some observations. Very few people’s lives ever neatly fit into these kinds of categories. That’s what my coffee companion got wrong all those years ago. The stages might be real, but they are fluid, and we are never static within them. We are always moving and changing.