Some people break down life into the first half (birth until forty-five-ish) and the second half (forty-five to death). I find it more useful to look at life in thirds. The first third is birth to thirty; the second third is thirty to sixty and the third third is sixty to ninety (or beyond).
Today, I’ll focus on the third third, when we – hopefully – become elders. Being an Elder is not defined by age, Elders are recognized because they have earned the respect of their community through the wisdom, kindness and support they embody and share with everyone around them. When you look at it that way, who wouldn’t want to be an elder?
How does retirement fit into this? The word used to mean “not working”, typically starting around age 65. In my research, I learned that the word “retire” (from the French, mid-16th century) originally meant “to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion” That’s a pretty awful vision for your third third of life. And yet, that’s just what many people do: Isolate. Withdraw. Disappear. No surprise that this is typically associated with early death: why stick around if it’s going to suck so much?
For context, I like to look at sociologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development, from birth to Elderhood. Each stage highlights a psychosocial “challenge” to work through in that stage of life. The eight stages flow chronologically and the age ranges are approximate:
TRUST VS MISTRUST: 0–2 years
Can I trust the world and feel safe and loved? Or do I feel unsafe, insecure and abandoned?
AUTONOMY VS SHAME/DOUBT: 2–4 years
Is it OK to be me? Can I create my self-identity and have independence too? Or is who I am fundamentally not OK?
INITIATIVE VS GUILT: 5–8 years
Is it OK to be myself in my family? Can I start solving problems on my own and figuring stuff out? Can I enjoy being myself or am I guilt-tripped into becoming who my family want me to be?
INDUSTRY VS INFERIORITY: 9–12 years
Can I make it in the wider world, like at school, sports or community theatre? Can I learn how to think and do things for myself and my community or do I feel just not good enough?
IDENTITY VS ROLE CONFUSION: 13–19 years
“Who am I really?” we wonder, looking at peers and role models as we develop our identities, through introspection and social relationships.
INTIMACY VS ISOLATION: 20–39 years
“Can I love and be loved?” is the question as we develop deep friendships and romantic relationships.
GENERATIVITY VS STAGNATION: 40–59 years
“How do I make my life really count?” we ask, exploring relationships, social responsibility and our physical/social/spiritual environment.
EGO INTEGRITY VS DESPAIR: 60+
Here is the third third, where we look back over our lives (so far), wonder if we did a good job becoming our own unique selves, and ask how our existence impacted others.
Integrity is about developing a set of core inner values that you live by out of your own sense of what’s right for you, not because you’re afraid of what others might say or think.
The Third third is a time of great change and can be exciting and adventurous…or, you can dread it and expect life to go downhill fast. Here are some questions to consider as you contemplate your own third third:
- As an elder, how will you exercise your mind for continued, personal learning?
- How will you deal with changes in income, health and purpose?
- Are you able to manage family commitments to an aging partner or your parents, siblings and/or children?
- How can you fill your life with fulfilling activities and interests at every age?
- Where would you like to live now? Might a smaller, simpler home with less maintenance please you more?
- Have you built and maintained enjoyable/intimate relationships? If those people die or move away, how will you continue to make new friends/lovers?
If your third third is many years in the future, how can you set it up to be the best third of your life? If it’s coming soon, have you laid a good foundation? If you’re already an Elder and and it’s not what you’d hoped for, how can you adjust what you’ve already created?