Redefining Middle Age – Baby Boomers are Purpose-Driven

In Cultural Commentary by Dr. Keith Witt

aa005048When I was a kid, middle age was considered your late thirties and forties.

People lost physical capacities, appeared much older, gave up on being more active, and looked forward to retirement in their fifties and sixties. “Mid-life crises” happened to forty-something adults where guys bought sports cars (and sometimes chased younger women), and women gave up on looking beautiful. Both sexes’ ambitions aimed toward their fifties and sixties when you retired and “did whatever you wanted” until you died. The whole deal never looked that good to me. My grandfather was an exception. He leased some land by the beach in Palos Verdes near LA, built a house for himself and my grandmother, and then fished, gardened, and hung out with family till he died. I remember as a five or six-year-old sitting on the construction site looking out over the Pacific Ocean while my Dad helped my grandfather frame the house. Everybody seemed so old—my dad in his thirties and Grandpa in his sixties. I now live in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean—a part of me chose this aspect of my Grandpa as a model. Today, middle age is considered by some anthropologists to stretch from your forties to your eighties. Sex researcher Helen Fisher says middle age lasts till eighty-five, and that romance and adventure—the hallmarks of youth when I was a kid—are considered more the norm at all ages. With ubiquitous gyms, health information messages, and modern medicine, men and women can look good and stay active into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. In the last hundred years, the life expectancy of western adults has increased by about twenty-five years—an extra quarter of a century—and for many boomers that is twenty-five years of active life. And greater longevity is just the tip of the iceberg for social changes:
  • Boomers have lots less financial security in old age than their parents’ generation (remember pensions?), forcing them to work longer and become more creative in their plans for older age.
  • There is incredible room in American culture today for diversity of lifestyle. It’s no longer considered weird to divorce, remarry in your fifties, sixties, or seventies, or to reinvent yourself at any age. People routinely accept others with different spiritual paths, political views, artistic interests, and marital status. If you’re younger than fifty, you might not remember the racist, sexist, conformist America that boomers were born into and finally revolutionized.
  • Women have equal power financially, sexually, and as parents. This is the first time in ten thousand years that this has happened—and never before with such educated women.
  • People change careers frequently, and boomer mothers take up careers as the kids grow up and go to college.
  • The boomers are the most psychologically sophisticated group that’s ever lived. Examples are most people knowing about the unconscious, understanding dreams as metaphors, and that kids’ worlds are different and need respect. We’ve seen this on Oprah, Martha Stewart, Dr. Phil, print media, the Internet, and in ubiquitous articles and research programs on sex, romance, health, family, happiness, and adventure. In the fifties, the concept of the unconscious was avant garde in much of America, and psychotherapy was considered a stigma. Now people brag about who their therapists are at parties (at least in Santa Barbara they do).
  • The Internet is teaching many of us how to receive help and influence, and encouraging many of us to offer help and influence. Having the combined wisdom of human history available on your cell phone has a tendency to teach even the most diehard know-it-all there is valuable information available that can improve understanding and living. On the other side of the coin, being able to blog, set up websites, and network with almost any group makes it easier to share our gifts with others (as I am sharing with you right now).
I’m sixty-one and began working with clients as a University of California at Santa Barbara peer counselor at twenty-two. Since then I’ve counseled thousands of people of all ages as a Marriage Family Counselor and Licensed Psychologist, and I’ve observed American culture change through their eyes, through my own experience, and through the wealth of research that’s been generated in the last forty years.

Boomers are redefining middle age, and—in spite of the increased self-absorption and narcissism that our generation suffers from—middle age is becoming more purpose driven.

My clients in their fifties, sixties, and seventies don’t want to just hang out and wait for the next cruise until they die, they want to make a difference—they want to contribute. A few weeks ago Sally, a vivacious retired teacher I work with, spoke longingly about her desire for meaning and purpose. I asked Sally to notice when she felt herself immersed in blissful service, and she later reported discovering how pleasurable it was to create initiations and rituals for her family and friends. As Sally spoke, we both realized that she’d discovered a personal organizing principle for blissful service. What I did with Sally reflects a new trend in psychotherapy, where discovering and combating your destructive self—popular in Gestalt therapy and other “expressive” therapies in the seventies—is being supplanted by a new emphasis on identifying your ego and inner critic and just not engaging them. For example, modern therapists rarely have people imagine their inner critic on a stool and have them beat the crap out of it (in the seventies people would literally use sticks and encounter bats to do this). They’re more likely to encourage people to be aware of their inner critic, avoid dialogue, and focus on more positive directions. Examples are:
  • “Sorry, shame-based superego (who always disapproves of something), I don’t have time to talk with you right now. I’m busy making a difference.”
  • “Excuse me pride-based ego who wants to make everything about me, I have deep soul’s purpose to get to.”
Instead of supporting clients obsessing about low self-esteem and self-destructive habits, therapists are encouraging people to ask themselves, “What do I feel right now? What do I want right now? What is most meaningful to me? What feels right at this moment?” These are all questions that lead us to purpose driven lives. Purpose driven lives put pressure on marriages. Lucky for Sally, she has a supportive husband—who at sixty-nine is still enthused about his own contributions to various groups. He recognizes the quality of Sally’s spirit and the beauty of her offerings. Such acknowledgement and recognition expands love, and can keep youthful passion alive between intimates. When couples I work with have difficulty recognizing the importance of purpose to themselves or their spouse, my job is to help them find what blissful service is for each of them and honor it. The ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” has come to pass for all of us, and especially for the boomers who are redefining middle age. But, like all curses, it contains a hidden blessing—interesting times force us to grow and share support with our fellow travelers. Growing and sharing support accelerates our personal evolution and the evolution of life itself. It’s what the School of Love is all about.