Growing Up Past 50: Is there yet another level?

Recently, I asked myself, Who do you want to be when you grow up? I mean really grow up?  

I have this sense that at the age of 60, there is more growing for me to do.

We aren’t encouraged to think much about the years beyond 50. There is school, work, and relationships to navigate in our twenties and thirties. During our forties, we grapple with finances, property, and prestige. Some achieve fame and receive awards. Many take positions to help others and change the world in some way. My contemporaries have been busy. 

But what comes next? Is there another stage to reach? Is there a next level to which we can evolve?

For me at least, I believe there is. I just have to be clear about what I want it to be.

In the early 20th century, G. Stanley Hall coined the term adolescence. He is credited with creating an entire stage of youth development. Later on, when Hall was in his sixties, he realized that the adult life span lacked a “full plot,” and he speculated that perhaps our later years needed more consideration and attention. 

Today, we continue to be puzzled by what it means to grow up past just being a grown-up.  

The truth is, many of us will live to be 90 even 100 or more—if we are lucky.  

What will those next 40–50 years hold in store for us?  

In A Fresh Map of Life, Peter Laslett suggests that growing older comes with the responsibility to construct a future he calls the “crown of life.” 

Mark Freedman, in The Big Shift, asks:

What is this period all about?  What distinguishes it? What are the unique features that give it meaning and make it different from other periods in life?  

He goes on to assert:

I’m drawn to…the notion of this period as something higher, a vista from which one can make out patterns, understand complexity, and more clearly appreciate what’s most important…A kind of higher adulthood.  

I want to grow into higher adulthood and construct my future crown of life.  

Here are five ways I wish my grown-up self to evolve.

My Grown-Up Has Inner Resources

No more excuses. I may suffer, but I am not a victim. I may struggle, but I am not helpless. No more pointing fingers or blaming others. I am responsible for my reactions.  

I am the caretaker of myself.

Years ago, I met a woman who casually warned me, “Don’t forget to do your inner work.” This has stayed with me for years.  

In their book The 100 Year Life, Gratton and Scott describe what they term “intangibles” as vital tools for living a long and successful life. Intangibles are the things that go unseen by others. They include self-knowledge, balanced thinking, emotion regulation, and creative problem-solving. According to Gratton and Scott, intangibles have as much impact on our success as money and prestige.

Neuroscientist Dilip Jest declares that mature brains are primed for the kind of thinking that we consider wisdom. He does warn, however, that the attainment of this prize is not guaranteed to all.  It is yet another skill to nurture.  

How do I deepen my connection to my inner wisdom? Even more important, how do I put inner resources to service?  

My Grown-Up Is Adaptive

The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson coined the term “elastic generation” to describe the over-50 crowd. This title captures the resilient nature of the grown-up I want to be.  

Mary Catherine Bateson calls over 50 “Adulthood II” and says that since there is no script for this stage; we need to develop the skill of improvisation. This means that instead of resisting change and turbulence, grown-ups say “yes, and…” In other words, we accept what comes and we make it into something worthwhile.

My grown-up self plays. She adapts instead of clings, looks forward instead of regrets.   

She subscribes to the science of neuroplasticity, which assures us that we can learn new things. No matter my age or my experience, I will continue to grow. I am open to change. Ready for what comes.

My Grown-Up Is Self-Renewing 

The grown-up I want to be will keep evolving. She is always developing and developing more.  Her identities unfold and unfold again.  

Psychologist Fredric Hudson calls this process “self-renewal” and proclaims that it’s through the experience of self-renewal that we become our next possible self. Growing up is not a linear process. It cycles, it deepens, and it expands.  

I revel in the idea that there are always new possible selves to discover, grow into and live. This means I resist the tug of complacency and stasis. My grown-up never says, “That’s just not me,” or “I could never be that.” 

Possible selves, a term coined by psychologist Hazel Markus, are always ahead for us. Crafting a self is a lifetime task, and I am thrilled by the idea of who my next future self will be.

My Grown-Up Takes the Lead  

She has power. She is responsible. She leads.

My grown-up is not deterred by limits set by ageism, or norms that say it’s time to slow down and retire. My grown-up knows she has more to give.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts cites findings that illustrate how long-term fulfillment is correlated with work that involves concern for others. Likewise, findings from the famous Harvard Adult Study suggest that a life well lived includes engagement with and contribution to others. According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, generativity is the ultimate task for the grown-up self.

In How to Live Forever, Mark Freedman describes generativity:

Generativity isn’t just about adding years to our later years. It’s ultimately about connecting to and nurturing the life that flows beyond our years.  

My grown-up looks for ways she can make a difference. She doesn’t want to be seen as a burden to the younger generations.  

So I ask myself, what can I give, and how can I help? 

It is possible that the young need us as much as we need them. We just have to figure out how.

My Grown-Up Collaborates

A grown-up works well with others. She is not reactive. She sees the big picture and champions difference. She is tolerant. She includes.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things.

It’s time to refuse isolation. I don’t hoard my goods or my heart. I stretch my arms back to those that come up behind us and reach forward to those who went before. People, all of them, are an opportunity for connection, support, and strength.  

In the end, for our species, community is the greatest resource. It could be that the role for all of us grown-ups is to nurture these communities and keep them sacred.  

Now that I have outlined the map to my grown-up me, I say this to myself: It’s time to get to work.

You are welcome to join me.

We haven’t lived this long to be useless.  

Let’s make growing up count.

Podcast

Each week Dr. Cecilia Dintino and Psychotherapist Hannah Murray Starobin will speak with women who have twisted their plots and discovered that life after 50 can be filled with imagination, inspiration, laughter, and endless possibilities.

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