A Roadmap for 21st-Century Adulthood?

Where’s the Roadmap for 21st-Century Adulthood?

Last century, we had the tyranny of the three-stage life: learn till you’re 20-25, earn till you’re 60-65, and adjourn till you die. Your “earn” period was defined by Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life, complete with tokens earned for the typical life achievements—spouse, kids, career, homeowner, savings, and all of the other responsible decisions along this linear path.

Of course, midlife was barely a life stage a century ago, as the average life expectancy was 47 in 1900. In 1900, there were 13 million people in the United States over the age of 45. Now there are 100 million. It wasn’t until 1965 that midlife started getting attention by introducing the word “crisis” to define this halftime era of one’s life.

Midlife as a brand has received virtually no attention in academia or from the government, even though about half of the American population is represented in the new, longer version of this forty-year life stage (many sociologists now suggest midlife is 35-75).

We know what our kids’ development path is at age 3 or 13, and we have some sense of how we’re supposed to embark upon being a young adult at 23. But what should we do at 40, 50, 60, or 70? Where are the midlife career counselors or the midlife wisdom schools where we can reflect on and audit our life experience to repurpose it in new ways?

As Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff has suggested, “This new adulthood is about becoming a truly unique individual who cannot be reduced to a role or a Rolodex, a net worth or a network — a person who is more than the sum of his or her own parts, more than achievements and the expectations of others, more than titles, statuses, and all the glittering prizes.”

How do we move beyond lifelong learning, which can be done at any age, and instead embrace “long life learning,” which is dedicated to living a life that’s as deep and meaningful as it is long? The things I want to learn and how I learn them are very different at 62 than when I was 32. Zuboff suggests, “The first half of life is about compulsion; the second half is about choice.” The ultimate question is this: How do we help people realize they have more choices in midlife than they even knew?

To be honest, it’s not a roadmap we need; it’s a compass. One that helps us reflect on and determine our true north. Of course, this process is much better suited for a workshop than a board game (or the “bored game” many people describe as their midlife). To be with a collection of like-minded mid-lifers where wisdom is shared, not taught, you come to realize you are not alone. MEA is this crucible for life-changing conversations. It is a fertile, generative place to imagine a future you probably could not have concocted on your own.

Chip Conley

This article first appeared in Chip Conley’s Wisdom Well blog