Thursday, February 11, 2016

The restructured life cycle -- with bonus years!

Recently, I was lucky enough to get involved in a conversation with an attorney who’d just quit her job, and we found common ground in our tendency to un-employ ourselves. She was calling her time off “practice retirement,” which really appealed to me since I think I still need more practice. But here’s the kicker: this woman is 37 years old. When I was 37 and un-employed myself, it would never occur to me to call it anything remotely like “retirement,” practice or not.

It reminded me of what Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says. We’ve added 30 years to our life spans, but all we’ve done is tack them on at the end. She says we should restructure our life cycles, put those extra years where we need them. Maybe simplify life during child rearing, maybe add more education later on, maybe extend careers into later life.
So maybe 37 is a good year for this woman’s first retirement. She’s fit, healthy, unattached, and unencumbered.

She’d had a plan for taking a year off, but she’d since come up with more good ideas, and they’d take longer than a year. Maybe a couple years. She was trying to decide on her money situation.

Because, as we all know, you either have money or you have time. I think next week I’ll talk about money, but today I’ll talk about time.

When Sophie was little, I kept thinking we didn’t try so hard to have a child to spend three hours a day with her. I needed time. So I un-employed myself or rather, took a “practice retirement.” After a while, I took a part-time, non-management position for that period in my life. Laura Carstensen is very big on part-time, too.

This wasn’t my first step off the employment treadmill; it wasn’t just a child rearing issue for me. I’d done it before for travel, for restlessness, for enrichment (on separate occasions). I guess I was taking “practice retirements.”

This reminds me of the two different kinds of hikers: the ones who aim for the destination and get there and the ones who stop for lunch, stop for snacks, stop for rests. The former want to relax at the end; the latter want to keep it pleasurable along the way. At different times, I’ve been both and been annoyed by both, but now, reflecting on the whole span of human lives, I’m thinking maybe taking it in bits is the way to go. If it’s an analogy for our lives, what is the “there” to get to anyway?
I’ve been calling this my Third Third, which supposes that I’ll live till 90 (just supposing). That means I have a whole third before me! That is 30 years – just about the increase in life spans over the century. That’s a lot of time. As Carstensen said, if people just aim for retirement – if that’s their “there,” their destination – that makes for an awful lot of retirement years to fill. (I read somewhere that after ten months of “retirement,” many retirees grow dissatisfied, maybe bored.)

In fact, if we took Carstensen’s ideas to heart, we wouldn’t have a Third Third at all. We’d have Sixths maybe, or Eighths, as we spread ourselves over the full course of our 90 years. She thinks we should aim our peak employment years for our 50s, relax during our child-raising years. Maybe in our Fourth Eighth, we’d go to college again. Maybe in our Fifth Eighth we’d head back into the employment world to the max.

These are the questions I ask: From your perspective now, how would you “restructure your life cycle”? What would you have moved around, delayed, done earlier? How do patience, wisdom, financial resources, and energy levels fit into the mix? And now, how does that apply to your Third Third? Would you add a second college-going interlude, another way of being with children, another bout of heavy-duty employment? What seems like it would have or still will work best for you?

What if those 31 additional years weren’t “extra” but were “integral,” incorporated into the whole? What would our lives look like … and how differently would society have to be organized?
So many questions. If this is what swims around in my head, I guess I can subject you to some of them, too. Let me know your ideas. That’s what the “Comment” form is for. (And for those of us who were wondering where that is, it’s after my last sentence, after the time I posted this. Found it? See, we are not tech dinosaurs!)


  1. It's funny, Barbara, but when people ask why I don't have an 'English' accent after living in the UK for these past nine years, I invariably think later about things I have taken on board a bit.

    Without some sort of list, I would say one that comes to mind is the ability to see how Americans approach things with a conviction of the best consequence. Call it 'The Happy Ending'. Folks here would look at our 'last third' of life knowing a good part of it will be dealing with the loss of muscle control, of memory, of friends and loved ones.

    Not too much fun, then. Yet finally, seeing oneself slide in to senile infantilism, a dodgy endgame to a life more-or-less well lived, if you were reasonably fortunate.

    There is acceptance of the last curtain with no particularly hopeful notion of immortality as most Americans hold, religious or not.

    You might say, it's a bit down in the mouth. Actually, a Brit would say, "It's realistic."

    Myself, knowing the biological consequences of having been ravaged by testosterone all these years, I look forward to a life less long -- maybe my 'last fourth'.

    You are writing of women's experience of these braking years -- not mine -- and I would suspect you are finding readers accordingly. One need only go to a social event in a 'retirement home' and look around.


  2. I am really enjoying my fifth sixth. I wouldn't want to have to be doing work or child-rearing now. (Well, maybe I would do some work if it were really interesting and I could take time off whenever I wanted.) I would consider more education now, and indeed, I am doing it, mostly through on-line courses or less formal methods, with no degree goal.

    A lot of people think I am "front-loading" my third third - that I am traveling too much now, etc. The implication is that I should wait. For what?

    I don't know if my sixth sixth will be as nice as my fifth sixth. We can never know that, or even if there will be a sixth sixth. Maybe my body will go. Maybe my mind will go. So I say, make the most of the present. But I wouldn't say that to a twenty-something.


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