I am a 45 year old experiencing nourishing and harmful experiences with the baby-boomer generation ahead of me. I see two extremes of behaviour in this generation about to turn 70: stepping into elderhood and nurture those that follow, or stepping into fighthood and flail about, harming those around them, including themselves. These two polarities have many gradients between them; my purpose here is to tease out those polarities and understand them better, allowing me to better choose who I want to spend time with. And maybe help those older than me show up more consciously too.
I am the first child of the first baby-boomers, the generation of babies born after the end of World War II in 1945. The oldest members of this generation are turning 70 this year and next, as are my parents born in 1945 and 1946, entering into a life that is new to humankind. Dr. Edward Kelly, a researcher in Dublin, Ireland, notes that we are now living 30 years longer than our great-grandparents:
What was old age for them is now middle age for us. If you are in your 50’s or 60’s, you have passed the old middle age but haven’t yet reached the ‘new’ old age. So where are you? Welcome to your Third Act. Sandwiched between your second and fourth act, the Third Act is a new developmental stage in human evolution . . . This new gift of time has profound implications for us . . . (Kelly)
Here are the four stages of development we now experience, according to Kelly:
- First Act – Formation, childhood, adolescence, dependency, growing to adulthood (age 1-25)
- Second Act – Development, independence, career planning & progression, partnering, bringing up family, saving for later (age 25-55/65)
- Third Act – Transformation, second chance, new career after retirement. Time, space, opportunity for growth & development (age 55-80+)
- Fourth Act – Pairing down, old age. Facing increasing frailty, loss of acuity of senses, health or mind and facing the inevitable end of life.
When in our 50’s and 60’s now, we are in new territory, and we don’t quite have a map for it, or a way to recognize it. Instead of simply dying of old age at 55, we live for potentially decades longer. (There is only one generation – the parents of the baby boomers and my grandparents – who lived this long and we still don’t know what to make of it. And the boomers are far more numerous.)
I am not at this stage of life, yet I find myself witnessing choices among those older than me. Some step out of their professional life and transform themselves as they explore new growth and development opportunities. As their new selves, they ‘retire’ only from the work they always have done, fuelled now by what they want to do, and who they want to be. These are elders who surrender to serve what their soul calls of them and serve the people around them. I call this elderhood.
In contrast, I also witness another choice among those older than me: to step into fights with all their might. Any battle will do, for the energy of the fight feels invigorating and just. Upon examination, however, the fight is not what they think it is because they are not mindfully choosing their battles, or the tools they will use for battle. The fight energy is feeding on them, and they offer it up because they don’t know what they are fighting, but fighting makes them feel as though they are fighting what they want to fight. I call this fighthood.
Elderhood is about surrender and learning.
Fighthood is about conquest and stagnation.
To be fair, we don’t know how to grasp this new Third Act. What Kelly gifts to us is a simple naming of what is underway here, in this unknown territory. Two-thirds of those who have every lived passed 65 years of age are alive today (Kelly). And not everyone who lives long enough for a Third Act will have a Third Act; there is a choice about what we want to do and who we want to be in this unknown territory.
When you come to the end of the second act, it’s not that you have run out of road it’s just that you have run out of road markings (Kelly).
Perhaps the people who choose fighthood don’t know what to do in this unknown territory, so they fight it. There are few ahead of them to be an example. There are some alongside them to set examples. And there are those of us behind them that need to tell them what to do.
I recall a story told to me by an elder recently, as I described these polarities and my frustration with people in their 60’s who don’t see their role to support people who follow them. She told me the story of a community where the elders of the community were asleep, neglecting their duties to conduct the rites of passage for young people. They had escaped their lives, were drunk and passed out. A young man went into their cave and kicked them awake. “Our young people are coming down off the sacred mountain. You have work to do. Welcome them home and hear their stories. That is your job as our elders.”
The elder asked me: “What can you do to kick the sleepy elders awake?”
To start, I choose to witness what I see. I notice what happens around me. I observe, without judgement or analysis. I don’t turn a blind eye, yet I don’t get caught up in fighting or praising.
Then I choose to name what I see. I explore what is happening, not so much to explain it, but to examine the possible dynamics, the underlying currents. By naming it, I see more clearly and objectively, and it helps others see more clearly and objectively.
I don’t need to know what the fighters are fighting – it’s their fight and they need to come to grips with their way through and find what it is they need to surrender to. They are on their own journey. In naming what I see, those that are up for the journey will see the challenge.
As I watch the elders and fighters in my midst, here’s what it means to the younger generations:
As a fighter, you:
- Mistrust me
- Tell me what to think
- Tell me what I should be
- Give advice, tell me what to do
- Ignore me when times are tough
- Blame others (and me) when things don’t go your way
- Tell me to buck up when I’m hurting
- Talk about yourself and what’s important to you
- Say “I told you so”
- Model a life of stagnation, rooted in the present and past
- Shut down opportunities for me to learn and grow
- Show me how to fight everything around me
As an elder, you:
- Trust me
- Challenge me to think differently, on my own terms
- Encourage me to find ‘me’ and be me
- Let me do what I think is best
- Listen to me when times are tough
- Laugh and surrender when things don’t go your way
- Acknowledge that pain is real
- Share helpful stories about what you see
- Say “what did you learn from this experience”
- Model a life of growth and development into the present and future
- Create opportunities for me to learn and grow
- Show me how to resolve the tensions inside me
The basic message here is significant: in fighthood you shut down not only yourself, but the opportunities for growth in the generations behind you. In elderhood, you choose to grow, and in so doing grow the generations that follow you. To the extreme, as a fighter you fight everything in the outside world, with no attention on yourself and who you truly want to be. As an elder, you explore your inside world, and show me how to be a better me.
Fighthood means you can ignore the inner workings of yourself, sabotaging yourself. You are showing everyone who follows you how to distract oneself from the one person you have to be in good relationship with: self. You might tell yourself that your fights are for good causes – homelessness, poverty, refugee crisis – but they are only a good cause if you have discerned that it is YOUR fight, not another’s.
Fighthood focuses on fight energy.
Elderhood focuses on generative energy.
Elderhood may look flimsy or fluffy compared to fight energy, but its strength is intense and stretches deeply when well cultivated. It holds the seemingly dangerous work of self-awareness for both the elder and the rest of the community. Elders create opportunities to be in touch with themselves, which makes the elder and the generations to come strong and resilient. Elderhood embodies humanity’s courage to become more than we have ever been before – by supporting, and surrendering to, younger generations.
This is the social habitat in which we make our cities. The healthier the habitat, the healthier the city, the healthier the citizens. The healthier the citizens, the healthier the habitat.
Kelly, Edward. “Introducing the Third Act of Life.” The Third Act. Accessed October 11, 2015. http://thethirdact.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/What-is-the-third-act_1.pdf
This post first appeared in the October 13, 2015 edition of the Nest City News.