I wrote recently about a passage in George Elliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss suggesting that middle-aged adults are particularly well-equipped to assist adolescents and young adults through their times of emotional turmoil. Elliot reasons that the middle-aged are prepared to help because they are past their own peak years of intense emotions, but still have vivid memories of those tumultuous times. I pointed out that middle age can itself be a time of emotional turmoil–that’s what a midlife crisis is, after all. Perhaps it is the struggles of midlife more than memories of their youth that motivate the middle-aged to offer assistance to the young.
Eliot implies that, unlike the middle-aged, we older adults no longer have even an attenuated level of passion in our lives. According to her, our memories have become merely contemplative, meaning that we’re just thinking about strong emotions, not having them. Is that true? Are older adults free of the sort of passions that characterize the young?
Throughout life, passion is a result of struggle. For the young, the struggle is to attain an identity and become a functioning adult. For the middle-aged, the struggle is to find meaning despite disillusionment and a heightened sense of mortality. Older adults have not traditionally been thought to face much in the way of struggle. The 1950s ideal of the Golden Years was predicated at least in part on assuming that older adults had few struggles. Supposedly, the elderly would have idyllic lives in which they faced no issues bigger than what golf course to play or what buffet to patronize.
If this was ever what it was like to be old, it certainly is no longer accurate for most older adults. For one thing, given that most recent retirees don’t have either the generous retirement pensions that were commonplace a few decades ago or adequate savings, many older adults will face more financial struggles than the previous generation. Even more important, though, has been a change in how we view older adulthood. Rather than considering post-retirement years to be an unexpected bonus, many of us have reason to expect that, absent some disaster, we will live at least another decade, perhaps quite a bit more. This expectation brings with it a desire to do something meaningful. Some even see this pursuit of meaning as a duty. Ken Dychtwald writes:
“You have a responsibility to keep yourself vital by thinking about what you want to be and by thinking about how you want to use your life. Remember…if you are not going to die soon, then you are not old. If you are not old, you have many years left and you must decide what to make of them.” (A New Purpose, p. 73)
Dychtwald’s book and others like it read much like the books about finding one’s calling or meaning in life aimed at young adults. Both genres talk about self-exploration as a means of deciding what to do. Both talk about finding what one is passionate about. Both portray potential readers as standing at a pivotal moment in life, one where there are few constraints and many possibilities.
So, perhaps age 65 and thereabouts has become second only to the late teens and early 20s as a time of self-discovery, opportunity, and passion. Rather than losing all passion–as Eliot believed was the natural course for older adults–the current crop of oldsters often have old passions renewed or find new passions altogether. Perhaps that gives us particular affinity to emerging adults. More than other age groups, we and they believe we can make the world a better place and have the energy and time to do something to accomplish that dream. Let’s start thinking of older adulthood as the second great age of passion.