CHICAGO – When Gail Sheehy wrote her seminal book, “Passages,” she ended her research when women reached age 50.
“I was in my 30s,” she says. “How did I know what happens after 50?”
What happens, she concludes today at age 69, is greater individuality than any other time of life. “It’s the most satisfying time of life for most people,” she says.
Sheehy talked about life after 50 at the What’s Next? Boomer Business Summit, a conference held in conjunction with the annual American Society on Aging/National Council on Aging conference.
America no longer just “grows old,” she says.
“The 30 years most of us have after age 50 are a time of growth and opportunity before the deficits of old age creep up.”
Few of us are prepared to live so long. “We might live long enough to forget the name of our first husband,” Sheehy jokes.
In recent years, she has focused increasingly on the way women spend these so-called “bonus years,” a time of purpose and life passion their mothers rarely knew.
Interviewing women for her latest book, “Sex and the Seasoned Woman,” taught her that women move at midlife from wanting to please to wanting to master.
“They rediscover who they set out to be before their life got wrapped up in the first adult level – years from 30 to 50 when they nurture a husband and children and also worry about a career.”
If women move toward a time of freedom, what happens to men?
Ah, their future is not as bright, Sheehy says.
Men, she believes, are transitioning from the work force at the same time that women’s careers are taking off after years of child rearing.
This doesn’t mean the guys are losing their important role in women’s lives, however. Certainly studies are proving two-thirds of divorces after age 40 are instituted by women, but the couples who make it through these traumatic times are stuck together like glue.
Sheehy talks about marriages shaped like a diamond – close in the beginning, moving apart at midlife, moving back together as a couple trades places, so to speak, with men becoming more nurturing and women more assertive
Together, she sees couples moving toward “grand love” – grand parenting.
The new 60 is just that – 60. Not the new 40. It’s officially the end of midlife, Sheehy believes.
And midlife is the time to rediscover “what you did as a teenager when time flew by and you didn’t notice.”
After midlife, she says, come the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the new aging. A time when the term “energetic 75-year-old” is no longer an oxymoron. To Sheehy, these are more changing times.
“I just watched that movie where all the old people leave on a spaceship – “Cocoon’ – and I was struck by the grandfather who decides to leave his grandson and go off to a better life elsewhere.
“I don’t think I could leave my grandchildren. I would want to stay and see what happens to their lives. I’d want to stay as long as possible.”
Not everyone responds to Sheehy’s message of life-change advantages. Even she knows not all women want to “follow their life passion” at 50.
And a lot of women can’t make the shift, particularly if finances are an issue.
In truth, there are the “core” or status quo Boomers who stay entrenched in their designated programs, says Carol Orsborn, author of “Boom!” a book on marketing to Boomer women. This group, she says, “responds to the message of authority.”
In addition to the “core,” there’s the majority, the group who moved away from home and into a more reactive transition mode.
And the “actualized boomer,” her definition of the person who has made peace with the best of all life stages.
The message is clear: We can’t all leave on the spaceship. At some point, we must choose which passage makes sense. For each, it will be different because, as the Boomers have always believed, “it’s all about me.”