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Author Chip Conley Explores the Wisdom and Inner Peace That Come With Age


“When work for most people meant manual labor, there was no need to worry about the second half of your life. You simply kept on doing what you had always done. And if you were lucky enough to survive 40 years of hard work in the mill or on the railroad, you were quite happy to spend the rest of your life do‑ ing nothing. Today, however, most work is knowledge work, and knowledge workers are not ‘finished’ after 40 years on the job, they are merely bored.” —Peter Drucker

The age-old, three-stage life cycle—education, work, retirement (raw, cooked, burned)—is deeply ingrained in our institutions and psyches. Changing it won’t happen overnight, especially when “employers can smell fifty,” as actor Steve Martin exclaimed in the film Bowfinger. Being too young to retire but too old to find a job is a modern problem that’s ripe for disruption.

As Laura Carstensen suggests, “The young study, the middle-aged work, the old rest or volunteer. We’re supposed to do things one at a time and in order. There is very little overlap between life stages and, as a result, not only do members of different generations have limited interactions with one another, which fosters misunderstanding and unease, but it’s hard for anyone—of any age—to find a holistic balance between family, work, community and educational opportunities.” It’s time to retire the three-stage life since life stages are just a social construction that today fosters ageism, the squandering of wisdom, and a diminished sense of meaning and fulfillment in the latter half of life. Fortunately, there is another way that isn’t such a linear conveyor belt to a cliff.

One of my favorite books I’ve read while researching Wisdom@Work is The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, professors at London Business School. And, fortunately, I’ve gotten to spend some time with Andrew exploring this subject in more depth.

They write about a more fluid, multistage life—with transitions and breaks in between: less of a lifelong “raw, cooked, burned” and more of a concentrated series of cycles. These multistage lives are more of a smorgasbord and less of a progression of appetizer, entrée, dessert, but as such, it requires building new habits to accommodate the many more transitions you will likely experience. It is a radically different way of thinking of the trajectory of one’s life. At its best, it offers us an opportunity to explore who we are and arrive at a way of living that is nearer to our personal values with the knowledge that we will constantly evolve who we are and what we know to adapt our skills to our changing interests and the changing marketplace.

Some older people lament millennials’ breaking from the traditional values built on the three-stage life. Maybe millennials can see the future better than we can and realize that being “outwardly mobile”—traveling the world as “digital nomads” with a smartphone as a compass and without the weight of owning a home or car—is more valuable today than being “upwardly mobile” on the old-school corporate ladder. No wonder dozens of millennial-focused programs like Remote Year, We Roam, and Outside are surfing this wave of young people shifting their “odyssey period” to ten to fifteen years postcollege as opposed to ten to fifteen months in previous generations for those who took a singular “gap year.” Maybe this is why millennials are living with their parents more often as well as waiting to get married and have children as young people are extending their process of entering adulthood.

Although this kind of change may sound daunting to those of us in older generations, in the twentieth century we’ve already seen major shifts in the social constructions around life stages with the advent of the concepts of a teenager and a retiree. Pre-1900, society didn’t create institutions for or didn’t even recognize these new stages of life. But maybe we’re at the dawning of an age-agnostic era in which your identity is defined more by how you’re pursuing your life at this moment than by your chronological age. Why should colleges be exclusively full of young adults a half-dozen years past puberty? Why can’t people in their fifties pursue a “gap year”? Should we be surprised when we show up at a hotel and see a friendly seventy-five- year-old smiling at us from behind the front desk, ready to check us in?

Gratton and Scott expand upon this new age: “Conventionally, living for longer is seen as being older for longer. There is evidence that this convention will be reversed and people will be younger for longer. . . . The last time stages emerged—teenagers and retirees— these were age-located stages. You have to be young to be a teenager and old to be a retiree. What is fascinating about these new emerging stages is that they contain many features that are age-agnostic.”

My friend Gina Pell, forty-nine*, coined the term “Perennials” in 2016 to define the idea that people may be in their prime much longer in ways that defy traditional expectations about age. As Gina, an Internet entrepreneur, explains, “Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.” This kind of antigenerational thinking will become more and more prevalent as we have five generations in the workplace and need to find the common language to create bridges to one another.

Boomer Paul Bennett, chief creative officer at the design firm IDEO, told me, “Life has historically been viewed as a mountain. The first half of your life you’re climbing, attempting to be all you can be. The second half of your life you’re descending, realizing all the things you won’t be. But what if that top of the mountain lets you take flight at your peak and allows curiosity to be the fuel that spurs you on? So many people don’t come to grips with their own definition of aging. Many have an unconscious voice in their head saying, ‘I don’t want that to be me’ when thinking of older people.” Maybe life is just a series of peaks and valleys, but as you get older you appreciate the scenery a little more and can guide others along the way.

Reprinted (or Adapted) from WISDOM AT WORK: THE MAKING OF A MODERN ELDER Copyright © 2018 by Chip Conley. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

This essay was featured in the Nov. 18th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.