Yikes! I’m turning 50 in ten days. It’s hard to believe. Where did the time go? What have I accomplished? What have I contributed? What do I want to accomplish and contribute in the next fifty years?
Sound familiar? If you are at or beyond 50, you have undoubtedly asked yourself these questions. If you are not yet at the 50 year mark, write these questions down – you’ll need them soon enough.These milestones in life provide an opportunity to stop and consider where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go from here. I remember asking myself these questions when I turned 20 and when I turned 30. (Somehow 40 seemed to pass more quietly for me.) Now I’m about to turn 50 – that’s a “5” and a “0.” While I am unavoidably older, I hope I am also a little wiser. One of the wisest things I’ve done lately is to read a great book by George Vaillant called Aging Well.
Dr. Vaillant is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This impressive longitudinal study followed hundreds of people from their college days well into their eighties. The findings are absolutely fascinating and provide some clues to making my next 50 years happy and meaningful. Some significant findings from the study so far include the following:
- It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.
- A good marriage at 50 predicted positive aging at 80.
- Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose our older ones add more to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.
- Objective good physical health is less important to successful aging than subjective good health – it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.
Dr. Vaillant also identified six adult life tasks that we must master to age well.
After finding an Identity (task one) that allows us to be separate from our parents, we must develop Intimacy (task two) which permits us to be involved with a partner.
Next comes Career Consolidation (task three) where we find a way to contribute in a way that is valuable to both society and to ourselves.
Generativity (task four) is next and includes our concern and care for the next generation.
Becoming a Keeper of the Meaning (task five) includes passing on the traditions of the past to the next generation thus linking the past with the future.
Finally we come to Integrity (task six) where we achieve a sense of peace and unity with our lives and with the world.
At 50, I think I am in the midst of a transition from Career Consolidation (task three) to Generativity (task four). At this stage of my life, I think I have enough “stuff.” I think I have enough “titles.” I think I have enough certificates and plaques on my walls. What I really want to do is to give something back, to clear the path for those who may follow, and to create something meaningful.
In the late 1970’s when I was a college student working on my bachelor’s degree I remember telling my favorite professor that I wanted to be a consultant and share all of the cool stuff I was learning with those who needed it. I’ll never forget his response. He told me that to be a good consultant, you had to be at least 53 years old. Perhaps my professor knew that I needed to spend some time mastering the first three life tasks before I had anything to return in a Generative way.
While moving past 50 is daunting, Dr. Valliant’s work provides insights on doing it with grace, dignity, and poise. In the end, “Positive aging means to love, to work, to learn something we did not know yesterday, and to enjoy the remaining precious moments with loved ones.”[iii] That’s what I want to do at 50 and beyond.
Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown. First list from p. 13, second quotation from p. 45, final one from page 16. (italics added)