Happy Birthday to ... me
I am grateful to have been pandemically locked down at my age, zooming into 60. Covid has been deadly for the old old, those in what I call their Fourth Quarter (of a 100-year-life). It’s been life-altering for the young. But for those, like me, already in a natural transition of wondering what to do with their Third Quarters, a forced pause was an unexpected gift. This collective break from doing gave me a kind of permission to explore more of the being. Just in time. Heading into my seventh decade this summer of 2021, I spent the year wondering ‘what next’?
If I survive covid, what will I do with the incredibly long life the actuarial tables are now predicting for me? After answering a few questions on a website called LivingTo100.com , I was told I’d live to be 106. That’s one number I had never integrated into any of my planning. Rather than thinking about slowing down, if I have 46 years (sic!) ahead of me, I need to be thinking about gearing up!
I’ve found working through this particular phase shift incredibly difficult. Mastery is tough to let go of. As is the responsibility of a cause I believe in. I have spent years building my persona, profession, and brand. I wrote the books, did the TED talks, carried the mantle for gender balancing the business world. I’ve invested! But if I have to debate the benefits of balance with one more late-to-the-party corporate ExCo, I may lose my sanity, like one of my colleagues actually did. What to do with all the expertise and reputation? Shall I toss it, re-create it, or simply extend it? Add to it and build a portfolio of passions and causes? Or rethink it and scale? When the world itself is shifting all around you (pandemic raging, China rising, climate changing, AI spreading, UK Brexiting, etc), planning for the relative insignificance of your personal transition may seem an embarrassing form of narcissism.
But when you look at the demographics and see that half the world’s population will soon be over 50, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if I’m lost and confused, so are a few other people. If we can’t make meaning of our life extensions, and find the utility of maturity, we’ll be wasting half the world’s human resources. Some of us like to think of ourselves as useful. Relevant even.
I’ve spent the past two decades focused on the balance and issues between the male and female halves of the population. I’ll probably spend the next couple on studying the over and under 50s. There is much work to be done. Peter Drucker predicted all this. “In future there will almost certainly be two distinct workforces,” he wrote back in 2001, “broadly made up of the under- 50s and the over-50s respectively. These two workforces are likely to differ markedly in their needs and behaviour, and in the jobs they do.”
But how do you move from one half of life to the other? Gracefully would be good. Decades that used to be devoted to recreation are being repurposed by those ever-revolutionary Boomers as some of the most self-expressive, impactful years of life. I’ve been coaching and interviewing dozens of people on this transition over the past year. I designed and rolled out a program called The Midlife Rethink to assist others in grappling with the inevitable questions and the current murkiness of the answers. Now it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.
That’s why I’m going back to school.
I need new ideas, fresh questions and a community of thoughtful midlife transitionists. Instead of resting on my laurels or registering for golf lessons, I’ll go re-invest in learnability. I’ve been accepted to Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) program. Designed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, it’s a program geared to helping experienced leaders move into purposeful late work. It’s a pioneering idea, now in its 13th year, and a model rolling out to other American universities, including Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute. (Moss Kanter was also a pioneer on gender issues in the workplace and wrote one of the first books on the topic.) There is no equivalent – yet – in Europe or elsewhere.
If the old 3-stage life of education-work-retirement is dead, we’ll want more educational institutions around the world supporting people’s transition through the entirely new phases now emerging. If we are going to live (and thrive) to 100, we should be able to upskill, rethink and pivot our careers at least every 20 years or so, if not more. That means school at 20, 40 and 60 should be normal. Not just a short Exec Ed program. Something longer and deeper, that gives you time to understand each new phase of both your personal and professional lives, and design for it. More than education, we need regular re-creation.
OK, I know I’m a bit of an obsessive, serial planner. I’ve always prepared for the next phase of life well before I hit it. Every time I see a new decade, phase or interest profiling itself on my horizon (marriage, entrepreneurship, parenting, empty nesting, ageing), I have a well-oiled approach to figuring it out, in three steps:
1. read everything I can about it,
2. interview dozens of people currently in that phase, and
3. then write about it.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Thanks for joining me for the ride. I will observe, interview and exchange with 50 other leaders on the program and in this transition. And write about it. I’ll post a weekly blog about everything I observe and learn along the way.
For all the bad rap that ageing gets, I must admit I love it. I was perhaps always old inside. My daughter claims to have an old soul, at 25. I have been surprised by the welcome my body and soul gave to the 18 months I’ve been grounded. Zooming, reading, writing and coaching have filled my days and nourished the caterpillar cocoon I contentedly tucked myself into. Ok, not the sore wrist and the weird, excruciating pain in my left knee. But I’ve never been happier, calmer nor more intentional. There will be time to swerve – and serve.
First, I need to find my new wings. Back to school, at sixty. I’m as excited as if I were six!