The New Rites of Passage

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.

You’ve written that we mature earlier physically now, but are taking longer to grow up emotionally and much longer to grow old. How do you explain that paradox?

A great deal has to do with the extension of the life cycle. There seems to be almost no limit in sight. The fastest-growing age group is women over 100. And the addition of Viagra and all of its copies helps to stimulate men to want to stay alive and keep active.

For quite some time now — for the educated middle class, at least — 30 is the time when you have to choose a path. But, then, suppose you don’t like it? Or it doesn’t like you? Then you have to change at 35, so everything is delayed. And another big factor is the wiping out of what used to be the only totally inflexible time line in the life course — that you couldn’t have a baby after roughly 45.

Right. The biological clock.

It was just impossible. Now, it’s not. Then you add in the huge movement of women liberating themselves and earning their own income and extending their education, becoming independent contractors, and not wanting to get married. An amusing minicrisis that I picked out about 10 years ago was men in their early 30s who couldn’t find wives: The best ones were already picked over in their 20s and the ones who were left were very independent. They had their own careers and they weren’t making any easy deals. So now you have couples and families that form in their 30s, and they only think about pregnancy in their mid to late 30s, so everything is on a 10-year delay.

In talking about growing up younger physically, if I were going to take a whack at describing the kinds of sexual patterns that we have at different stages now, I would say the teens are copycat sex — whatever your social group is doing. And then the 20s become rabbity sex — just anybody, anywhere, and for women, too. It’s totally experimental. And then the 30s become exhausted sex — you know, it’s the children and I’d rather go to sleep and that’s the end of it. And then the 40s become masterly sex. People know much more about their bodies and their partners, and they’re just better at it. I think 50s sex is rejuvenation sex. The kids are gone and you can go to spas or stay in bed on Saturday morning, or rent porno videos or whatever turns you on. Or it may be a new partner or it may be divorce, as it is with so many. Women in their 50s are dating younger men in vast numbers, just the way men always did with younger women, and still are.

You have different names for each of the stages, like “the flourishing 40s.” Why did you choose the word flourishing?

By your 40s, there is so much that you can control about your own impulses; you know more about your own weaknesses. Unless you’re a washout, your life course is on track. You’re still youthful in appearance and physical abilities. For women, the late 30s are their sexual peak, and for men it’s not a decline yet, either. When I wrote Passages, the early 40s were when people would have a midlife crisis. Well, they don’t really have a midlife crisis now. They might have a mini one, but it’s a kind of deadline crisis — when you realize that if you don’t find your passion and define your life, it’s going to be too late. That really comes with approaching 50.

And that’s the threshold of what you call “second adulthood”?


I’m interested in your idea of anticipating the second adulthood and anticipating the crisis it represents — before you’re blindsided by some external thing, like being downsized. You write a lot about facing up to, riding with, and enjoying this second adulthood.

The whole idea of Passages was that we have these longer, more stable stages like the flourishing 40s. Then there is a period of turmoil and disequilibrium, which is also a period of opportunity that I call a passage and that Eric Erikson called a crisis. It’s a passage to the next longer, more stable stage. In that passage, you can either leap forward or regress, and if you stay where you are, if you just deny or avoid the passage, you really won’t advance and there will be penalties for it. The flourishing 40s are a time that people can mostly enjoy. For women, in particular, it’s usually a period during which they move from pleasing to mastering. Even though they do less pleasing now because they’re more independent, they are looking after other people’s needs primarily. When I interview women in their 50s today, particularly divorced women, of whom there are vast numbers, they will say, even if they have a job or a semicareer, “I spent my 30s and 40s living out my husband’s life and my children’s lives, and now it’s my turn.” That’s a very common theme.

It sounds like people’s consciousness of longevity may make the passage a more powerful thing.

Yes, it’s a very major shift. When I wrote the original Passages, it used to be a mortality question: “Oh, my God, I’m going to die. How do I get my savings together? How do I deal with my health?” and so on. Now it’s more like, “Oh, now I have an opportunity to find my passion.” It’s perfectly acceptable to go back to school even in one’s 50s, and it may not be for some instrumental purpose — because you want to become an accountant — but because you really always wanted to learn history or anthropology. That makes you richer as a person. Women in particular are often dropping out of corporate life, even one step above the top, in their 50s because they don’t want to be completely tied to that treadmill, and they’re starting their own businesses.

Not because they’ve hit a glass ceiling?

Well, that too. The amazing thing is that now they can get a loan in their 50s, because the banker knows that they’re probably going to be knocking their brains out until they’re 75. Twenty years ago, giving a loan to a woman in her 50s to start a business would have been unthinkable. I see this kind of reawakening happening all the time with both men and women in their 50s.

Flaming or fearless 50s, as you call them.

It depends on how bad menopause is. Flaming 50s was meant to be kind of a joke. You’re flaming in that you’re on fire and can do anything, but you’re also standing in front of the freezer because you’re suffering from hot flashes in the middle of the party!

The fearless 50s idea was “Go for broke.” You’ve finally broken free of a lot of the prescriptions of your parents, or they’re ill or gone. You really know how the world works now, probably as much as you’re going to. And it’s the time when you can really be unconventional. As we get older, we become closer and closer to unique. We all think we’re unique in our 20s, and we’re not, at all. But by the time you get to 50, you have a pretty unique history profile. People often call it baggage, but it’s also imprints. Imprints that make you interesting and different. Often we’ll go back to playing sandlot baseball or getting a motorcycle or doing something physical, like taking up kayaking — it’s regenerative. And, as I said, I think that’s also what sex is like in the 50s.

And the 60s are serene?

At their best, the 60s are serene. One begins to really compile one’s life history in the 60s. Mentally, I mean. You come to terms with regrets, reopen estrangements with friends or college buddies or even a parent or child. There’s a sense of trying to begin to round out the life story in a positive way. I also call the 60s selective — selectivity of what one does for work, what one does for pleasure, the way one spends one’s energy — because there is a diminishment of energy. It also can be very sobering, keeping to the alliteration! I never thought of it before, but a lot of people have to give up drinking in their 60s, because they just can’t process alcohol well anymore. There’s also the sobering of “Oops, I didn’t really think in time about my retirement years and now there are going to be so many more of them.” If you’re 65 today and you’re healthy and you do all the right things, you may very well live another 20 years. So how do you pay for that? That’s a big, sobering issue.

And for a lot of folks, it’s just staying in the workforce, isn’t it?

Right. We know that men who retire gleefully at 65 and go play golf may be able to keep that going for a couple of years, and then they get bored and depressed and they’re likely to get sick and so on — it’s a spiral. Women who are the first generation of professionals who are now retiring in their 60s know that they don’t want to stop working, because they started late. If they’re healthy, what are they going to do with their lives? They may have seen husbands before them who retired early and just puttered around looking forgotten. There will be more and more start-ups of people in their 60s retraining themselves to use computer technology. It’s very exploratory and exciting. It isn’t as serene as it was when I first coined that term. It’s serene and sobering.

And that’s another fruit of increased longevity and people reconceiving the arc of their lives instead of having a kind of end point?

Yes, it’s an overworked term, but reinventing oneself is an ongoing process. There’s really time for three different careers. There may be time for three different partners. Think of it in chunks — 20 to 40, 40 to 60, 60 to 80. The other day, a friend of mine who’s turning 60 in the next couple of years said she’s planning to disengage from her second marriage because her husband is 10 years younger. She realizes that what he’s going to want at 50 is going to be really, really different from what she is thinking about at 60, which is slowing down a hectic work schedule and doing some more aesthetic things. Whereas he’s going to be dealing with the fact that he didn’t become the great success that his father was and maybe looking for compensations in other ways — drinking, other female company, who knows? It’s interesting that people can now say, “Well, that was good for 40 to 60, but I don’t think it’s going to be what I want to do from 60 to 80.”

When do people now become conscious of mortality?

The first major illness — then you really know the warning signs. You feel it in all of your senses. It’s not just an intellectual concept anymore. It’s in your bones. It’s a clear line of demarcation, even for those of us who haven’t experienced it but have seen it in a partner or a parent.

It’s a rite of passage?

Definitely. And how one deals with that colors how one looks at the rest of the life ahead. For instance, many women now are survivors of breast cancer. Many men are survivors of prostate cancer. Those used to be death sentences. If you have gone through that process in a thoughtful way — doing all the homework, talking to different doctors, carefully choosing a method of treatment — and then are successful, there is a sense that you have some control even over the failing of your body and how long you can put off mortality.

With all the increased vitality we’re talking about, do you think there’s any loss for older people in terms of the traditional sense of wisdom? There is this kind of super-senior stereotype that I think some people probably suffer from: “If I’m not climbing a mountain at 70, there’s something wrong with me.”

I think that more of the problem is being obsolete in terms of information technology. I just heard a story about a man who was approaching 70, a valued employee, number two in a corporation. They constantly hired young, bright techno-whizzes who could do all his computer work for him because he was totally computer-phobic. When the last guy left, nobody else wanted to do that for him, and they just got rid of him. Just think of your sense of helplessness if everybody’s talking about the Web site and e-mailing, and you can’t do it. I think older people can get a sense of importance with grandchildren, because the grandchildren soak up everything that the grandparents have to give and just revere them. There is a tremendous connection across the generations.

Have you noticed trends or changes in the past few years in terms of the general attitude of fear that pervades our society right now?

Since September 11, young people know that their parents can’t protect them from terrorism. And they can’t protect themselves. I don’t think that we have resolved our sense of fear and vulnerability since September 11 at all. We’re constantly warned that we can’t avoid another attack on the homeland, and it could come anywhere. We all walk around with a new sense — or I should say, an ageless sense — of mortality that we can’t even talk about.

Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne.

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