The New Rites of Passage

| July / August 2004

It's been 25 years since Gail Sheehy's book Passages redefined our lives. What's changed?

All the world may be a stage, and the men and women in it merely players, as Shakespeare famously noted in his "Seven Ages of Man" soliloquy, but in a world where "30 is the new 21," Saul Bellow becomes a father at age 84, and parents' interests dovetail with those of their teen and tween kids, it's no longer clear when we enter and exit those various stages of our lives -- and, indeed, if we even have only seven stages. This section reveals that the old rules no longer apply when it comes to traditional rites of passage -- whether it's the nature of retirement, parenting, or post-college angst -- and that it's up to us to create new ways to mark our lives. As the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey quipped, "All the world's a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed." -- The Editors

When Gail Sheehy published Passages in 1977, critics and readers recognized it as a pioneering work, charting the massive redefinition of middle age that was under way in America. Thanks to increasing longevity and a 1960s-spawned sense that human beings can go on growing and changing all their lives, American adults were moving beyond the traditional adolescence-marriage-work-retirement paradigm -- and Sheehy was the most important chronicler of the crises that resulted. In the books that have followed, including New Passages (1995), The Silent Passage (1998), and Understanding Men's Passages (1998), she has refined and elaborated her insights into midlife (and other life stages, too) while sharpening her focus on issues specific to women and men. In a conversation with Utne senior editor Jon Spayde, Sheehy reflects on the continuing importance of what she calls "second adulthood" -- the opportunity for self-assessment and radical change that comes in the 40s and 50s -- and carries her ideas forward into the post-9/11 world, with its profusion of new worries and challenges.

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