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Q: What motivated you to write The Big Shift? Turning 50?

A: In a sense, it was turning 50. After 25 years of working, I was exhausted. I made plans for a three-month sabbatical in Australia, which I ended up canceling. Too exhausting. Instead, my wife and two sons, then 1 and 3 years old, made plans for a two-week road trip from our home in San Francisco up the coast to Portland, Ore. When I made the reservations, I asked the hotel clerk for an AARP discount … and two cribs.

That odd combination of discounts and requests – signs of what once indicated distinct parts of the life cycle separated by decades – made one thing abundantly clear and personal: The old map of life, which guided us for generations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism.

Until not long ago, the 50s and 60s meant retirement, grandparenthood, senior discounts and early bird specials. But there are a growing number of us who can be classified as neither-nors. Neither young nor old. Neither retirees nor of traditional parenting age. Tired, perhaps, but neither ready to be retired nor able to afford it.

This book grew out of a desire to make sense of what was happening in my own life, in the lives surrounding me, in the circumstances of many others at a similar juncture, especially in the context of economic pressures that were forcing more and more people to rethink assumptions about the future, about what’s next and what matters most.

Q: What’s wrong with the old map of life?

A: We’ve been remarkably adept at extending lives, but our imagination and innovation in remaking the shape of those longer lives have been struggling to keep pace. Today, the end of middle age is no longer, for most people, attached to the beginning of either retirement or old age.

Individuals left in that lurch, in this unstable space that has no name, no clear beginning and end, no rites or routes of passage, face a contradictory culture, incoherent policies, institutions tailored for a different population, and a society that seems in denial that this period even exists.

Q: What would a “new map of life” look like?

A: The way to make the most of coming 100-year life spans is not to stretch and strain the contours of a life course set up for a bygone era. That’s like plastic surgery to make a 70-year-old face look like a 40-year-old one – the result is unnatural and the intention wrongheaded.

Instead, we need to create a new stage between the end of the middle years and the beginning of retirement and old age, an “encore” stage of life characterized by purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations.

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Q: Can’t people just make the best of it?

A: Sure, if you’re heroic, lucky or loaded. I don’t believe that glib talk from advice mongers or exhortations from the optimistic will do the trick for the rest of us. What we’re facing is not a solo matter; it’s a social imperative, an urgent one that must be solved. With close to 10,000 women and men a day turning 60, it’s high time to accelerate the social construction project that is the encore years.  

Q: Have people created new stages of life before?

A: Yes. These categories – childhood, adolescence, midlife, old age – might seem as natural as the oxygen in the air, but in truth, they’re made up. They’re artifacts, fashioned to make more sense of individual lives and bring a new alignment between lengthening life spans and the arc of the life course.

A hundred years ago there was no adolescence. Look back another hundred and childhood barely existed. Retirement as we know it is a concoction of the post-World War II period. Right now there are two new stages being created – emerging adulthood and the encore years.

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Q: What makes the proposed new stage between midlife and old age distinctive and worthy of its own standing?

A: The new stage between midlife and old age is distinctly not defined by the traditional markers of retirement, the end of work and the end of family duties. Economic necessity and psychic significance, for example, are making work – encore careers – a centerpiece of this stage. But I’d say the characteristic that forms the heart of this period is the unique perspective those in their encore years have on time – time lived, time left to live and time beyond our lives.

Time lived, more commonly known as experience, gives those in the encore stage skills, patience, judgment, an ability to connect the dots and even to see more dots. There are clearly some real benefits to having been around the block.

Time left to live refers to the growing sense of mortality that begins to dawn on people as they move through midlife. At the same time, for those of us moving beyond 50, there is an appreciation that the road might go on for quite a while, for a period approximating the middle years in duration.

Time beyond our lives refers to our increasing awareness of the time that we will never see, and the corresponding increase in our desire to be generative, give back, leave the world a better place than we found it. Thanks to longer life spans, we have the opportunity to live a legacy – not just to leave one.

Q: Are you calling for the end of retirement?

A: No. I’m just stating the obvious: Thirty-year retirements aren’t sustainable or desirable for the vast majority of us.

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Q: What’s available to help people at the end of midlife transition to the encore stage?

A: Not nearly enough. For most people, it’s a DIY – do it yourself – project. There are a lot of resources available to help young people transition from school to work – career centers, guidance counselors, internships, gap years, service opportunities – but there has been little to help people transition from midlife to the encore stage. That’s just beginning to change.

Some colleges are offering encore programming for returning students and for alumni. Dozens of community colleges are offering courses to those over 50 to help them transition into encore careers in education, health care, social services and environmental work. Some nonprofits are offering “encore fellowships” – internships for those who have finished their midlife careers and want to bring their skills to the nonprofit sector. And national service organizations, like the Peace Corps, are enrolling more older adults looking for a way to transition to their next career.

Groups are springing up all over the country to help organize events, opportunities and support for people in the new stage – Coming of Age in Philadelphia and a number of other cities, Experience Matters in Phoenix, Discovering What’s Next in Boston, and many others. The Transition Network works in more than a dozen cities to encourage women in this new stage to support one another. And we’ve seen the appearance in recent years of a life coaching profession focused on helping people entering the new stage.

Q: What do we, as a society, need to do to create a new stage of life?

A: We need to think big and dramatically increase the pace of innovation. How about inventing gap years for grown ups, during which they could rest, take a class, volunteer or try out a new career direction? How about financing a gap year with a new, tax-exempt savings vehicle we could call the Individual Purpose Account? What about rethinking our entire higher education system?

Why cram so much of our education into our late teens and early 20s when we may want to move in a whole new direction in our 50s, 60s and 70s? How about many more encore service opportunities and encore fellowships? Where are the incentives to encourage those in their encore years to bring their skills to the areas where they are most needed?

It’s time for a comprehensive Encore Bill that would help people in the new stage develop their human capital, transition into new roles and handle the financial challenges.

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Q: Suppose we do create this new stage. What’s the payoff?

A: If we act, the new stage could well become a destination – the way “early retirement” used to be – and the individuals flooding into this stage could become the human-capital solution to much that ails us in this society. As we confront significant challenges in areas like education, the environment and health care, this windfall of talent could help carry us toward a new generation of solutions.

We are in the position to make a monument from what used to be the leftover years, a second chance for people of all stripes to ascend the ladder of contribution and fulfillment, and an opportunity for society to “grow up” along with its population.

Q: Good for boomers, but what about the rest of society?

Baby boomers are just the first wave of women and men passing into this new period, which amounts to a permanent change, a phase that will soon be occupied by their longer-living children and grandchildren. These individuals are the ones who stand to inherit a period that could one day become the best time of life.

In crafting this new phase, we’ll inevitably revamp the nature of all the other stages along the way, opening up possibilities and options for younger people who can make important life decisions with the expectation of more than one bite at the apple.  

That’s why we all have a stake in this project.  It’s our chance to turn the purported paradox of longevity – good for individuals, terrible for society – into a vast payoff for all generations, now and into the future.

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