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Review of the Third Chapter – Life 50 – 75
As a career consultant, I keep looking for a book aimed at people in mid-life. This book seems to be a preparation for the years just passed half life, which Mary Pipher characterizes as the “young old”.
As I noted in the review of other books, I often think that it is impossible to write a really useful book about this stage of life because (a) there are not many choices for everyone and (b) there is such a variety of people, health levels, skills, attitudes, backgrounds and more. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot deals with (b) focusing on a small slice of the population: educated, healthy people without financial worries. In that group, he finds common patterns: a desire for something that cannot always be called, a resistance to change (possibly because successful people tend to resist changing a cherished identity) and finally a learning that differs from the previous classroom experiences.
It is insights like this that led me to give the book a 4 star rating rather than 3 stars. I agree with the critics who complained about the length of the interviews, the details of the subjects’ lives and the narrowness of the subject matter. I also agree that the book does not present as many original ideas and frameworks as readers might expect from extensive research. But as a former academic myself, I think it is appropriate to work with a narrow sample, as long as it is clear at first, preferably in the title of the book. There is value in asking explicitly: “If money were no object, how would people choose to enter their sixties and seventies?” At the same time, these people are insulated from many consequences of aging.
I also liked the author’s review of how notions of aging and retirement have changed. I would like to see more on this topic. When I lived in New Mexico, I met people who lived in “55 and over” communities, including a woman who cared for her elderly parents. When her mother died, she was in her early fifties: too young, according to the community. I’ve also met people who wonder why I don’t want to live with my peers, an idea that makes me feel suffocated. It is good to have the historical perspective.
The best part of the book was the author’s interview with economist Matthew Gladstone. Gladstone’s perspective makes sense, perhaps because I have a B-school background and love my economics courses. Gladstone suggests that as we continue to do the work, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I understood him correctly, I believe he could suggest that a successful lawyer could get enormous joy from winning his first case, then his second… but at some point, it will be less joy. It’s like eating a meal when you’re hungry; as you start to feel happy, you don’t like food.
I think we can extend economic thinking even further. When you reach a certain age, you can certainly invest the time, energy and money you have to learn something new or start a new business. But your ROI – the return on investment – will be limited. You can write a novel and maybe even sell it, but you don’t have time to go on and write a series that would bring you the real rewards that come to authors after a long career.
I don’t agree that the book reads like an academic article or a dissertation, having seen too many examples of the real thing. In fact, I think the book would have been stronger if the author had introduced more sociological concepts to frame several examples. For example, the interviewees made transitions from high-level professional or organizational settings to a more correct, artistic and/or spiritual focus. I know many people who never want to stop working. Volunteer work and art will never be enough for them (and I feel that way). The author notes that an interviewee, Pamela, feels frustrated because there are structural and institutional limits to her contribution. However, anyone over 50 who wants to continue making money faces much greater challenges.
Finally, admitted to being jealous of those who have found their new artistic vocation. I wish I had thought about singing lessons, but I suspect I will always be advised to focus on the songs instead of trying to sing. Over the past ten years, I have taken pottery classes in two different states. I was always less talented than anyone else in the class. It was fun, though, and I just took it back. This time I decided to take it for a spin. I still have less talent than anyone else and I also have sore deltoids in my left arm. However, I echo the experience of the interviewee, Josh, with learning the piano: trying to aim at a higher level brings psychic rewards.
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