We can't stay 49 forever. When we cross the half-century mark, the low distant rumbling of "Time's winged chariot," so easily kept at bay before, suddenly sounds alarmingly close and sobering. As renowned sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot notes in The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, both men and women at this juncture begin to feel "the years closing in on them; they appreciate that every day counts in a life that will inevitably end sooner and sooner." But far from despairing, resting on their laurels, or simply soaking in sunsets, Lawrence-Lightfoot finds that in increasing numbers, people in their "Third Chapter" are using this time "to bring the pieces together," to integrate their long-held values and the dreams they have too-long deferred, with their actions and behaviors going forward.
An education professor at Harvard and the author of eight previous books, Lawrence-Lightfoot spent two years traveling the country interviewing men and women ages 50 to 75 who saw themselves as "new learners," people who were finding new ways of "changing, adapting, exploring, mastering, and channeling their energies, skills, and passions into new domains of learning." Part chronicler, part cheerleader, she witnessed their inspirational endeavors first-hand. "I watched a fifty-five-year-old biologist take surfing lessons . . . followed in the footsteps of a seventy-year-old architect going on her first archeological dig."
As we "reshape our culture's understanding" of education, wisdom, productivity and work after age 50, Lawrence-Lightfoot stresses that our society must also provide the "necessary institutions and infrastructures" that allow people to continue to contribute. And in spite of differences in situation, circumstance or goals, she noticed that people who were successful at aging shared certain characteristics—a willingness to "take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from . . . younger generations, and develop new relationships of support and intimacy."
Linda Stankard is a few pages into her third chapter and no stranger to reinvention.