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Over 60? Think of Your Stage, Not Your Age

Stanford researcher Susan Wilner Golden says people should be assessed based on what they do rather than how old they are

By Richard Eisenberg

There's a serious problem in America, says longevity expert Susan Wilner Golden, in the way many of us — and businesses — view people over 60: as a monolithic group.

In her new book, "Stage (Not Age)," Golden makes a case that chronological age no longer defines us, especially in the second half of life. It's the stage of life we're in that's most important. A 50-year-old and a 75-year-old, Golden says, may well be in the same stage of life, what she calls the "reinvention stage."

A group of people of all ages in a work meeting. Next Avenue, lifestage vs. age
Chronological age no longer defines us, especially in the second half of life. It's the stage of life we're in that's most important.

That stage, she writes, follows the growth stage and the subsequent career and family stage, and it precedes what Golden labels the "closing" stage.

"People are going to need more money if they're going to live to a hundred, they're going to need to rethink when, and if, they retire."

Golden, director of the Stanford University Distinguished Career Institute's dciX impact initiative, thinks people 60+ (she calls them "the fastest growing, most dynamic market in the world") are frequently misunderstood.

You Are Not Your Grandparents

What's more, she writes, some people over 60 fall into society's trap of assuming their usefulness and ability to enjoy life are fading fast.

"People tend to think the way it's been is the way it's always going to be," Golden, who is also a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, told me. "They saw that their parents, or their grandparents, didn't live into their eighties or beyond very often, so they assume, 'Well, that'll be my situation.' But you know, clearly for many people, it won't be."

To learn more about viewing life through the prism of stages, I recently interviewed Golden, a former venture capitalist and med school professor who advises companies about their longevity strategies.

Richard Eisenberg: What inspired you to write "Stage (Not Age)"?

Susan Wilner Golden: That came about after I was a DCI fellow [in her 60s] and was spending some time at the Stanford Center on Longevity. I learned about Merrill Lynch's longevity strategy for its clients and for their employees.

Financial institutions have been among the first in the private sector to recognize the need, and the opportunity, related to longer life. People are going to need more money if they're going to live to a hundred, they're going to need to rethink when, and if, they retire, and their life priorities will be different at different points.

I thought this was the most vibrant period of my life. And I looked around my DCI cohort — we ranged in age from fifty to mid-seventies, but we were in the same stage. We were rethinking: What do we want to do next? What were our life priorities?

So I started thinking it's wrong to think about age defining you. It really is stage.

Why is it important to think that way as we get older?

Because too many people think 'I'm done. I can't start something new. I can't learn something new.' And that's absolutely not true.

"Too many people think 'I'm done. I can't start something new ...' And that's absolutely not true."

In your book, you write about 50 labels for older people, including "seniors," "explorers," "perennials," "vintage" and "modern elders." Do you like any of them?

We need better language because there's ageism in the language, calling people "senior" or "elderly."

I came up with a concept that we're not in elderhood or seniorhood, we're in furtherhood. That came from a conversation with a friend; we're going further and we're looking forward to it. This can be truly a Renaissance period in your life when you're rethinking what to do and you know what you're good at and what you're not good at.

Traditionally, people have heard there are three stages in life — you learn when you're young, then you earn and then you retire. But you think that no longer makes sense. Why?

"You're going to need to be a continuous learner..."

I think the three-stage life made sense when people only lived to sixty-five. But if you're living another forty years or so, you just can't have a stage called retirement for forty years. It doesn't make sense from a life-activity standpoint, from a purpose standpoint or from a financial standpoint.

So, I began thinking about the stages that we're going through. And they're not sequential.

In your early stages, you're learning, but you're going to need to be a continuous learner to keep going further.

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What do you mean by the "reinvention" and "closing" stages and how are they different from retirement?

In the reinvention stage, yes, you may stop working where you have been, but that doesn't mean you're going to retire from working or from having a purpose. In this time period, it's resetting your life priorities. It's rethinking what you might want to do. You may have many talents you want to deploy in different ways.

"The majority of successful companies, except in the very high-tech world, are developed by people over fifty."

There are a whole lot of people who are in that reinvention stage. And that's where I think you should try resetting your priorities — financially and from a time standpoint.

I think of this as a very entrepreneurial stage. We know from research the Kauffman Foundation has done that the majority of successful companies, except in the very high-tech world, are developed by people over fifty.

And this reinvention stage doesn't necessarily start at age sixty and end in your late sixties either, right?

No, it could start in your forties or your fifties. You can also be reinventing yourself in your seventies and eighties, too. The reinvention stage is really the exciting one.

The Rise of 'Returnships'

What is it going to take so more people understand the idea of reinvention?

I think we need to profile more people who start new chapters very successfully.

And to get more employers hiring older adults without judgment, without ageism, knowing that they can be valuable. There are a lot of companies that are starting "returnships" for people who've taken a career break for whatever reason.

The labor shortage in teaching, in medicine and nursing is going to force employers to say: "These people who we retired could easily help us fill the needs and they want to — but in a more flexible schedule."

"Ageism is not considered part of the traditional diversity equations [of employers], but it absolutely should be."

When the job market is not as tight as it is now, will age discrimination return as employers say "We're not interested in hiring people over sixty because they're unproductive or don't have technology skills or just want to retire"?

It could happen. It's interesting that ageism is not considered part of the traditional diversity equations [of employers], but it absolutely should be. Research shows that multi-age teams are more productive than teams where everyone is a similar age.

And I'd say to employers: How are you possibly going to design all these new products and services for the longevity economy unless you have a mixed-age workforce? It's a huge, missed opportunity if business is not thinking about ways to retain, or import, older adults in their workforce.

I also hope employers help their employees think about longevity and … support them if they need a career sabbatical to rejuvenate or to go back to school and get new skills. If you invest in the people in your company, they'll stay longer.

Reaching the Last Act

What's the "closing" stage of life? That sounds grim.

It's at a certain point where you start thinking about your legacy. That can be a very important stage, and fulfilling — where you start thinking about writing your memoir or the lessons you want your family to have from you.

It's also about planning all the things you need to do with wills and trusts and advance directives. Unfortunately, most people's advance directives are not completed, and their wishes are not honored, and people suffer.

Why isn't there much assistance helping people make transitions later in life?

It's happening more in other countries with longevity strategies. Denmark does it; Israel does it. Both of those countries have a digital literacy campaign for everybody over fifty every year. People are going to need that kind of support.

One Company That Gets It

Do you think businesses are adapting to this idea of "stage, not age"?

Some are. One that's really intrigued me is Warby Parker. When they first came out, they targeted young people. This was the hipster brand of eyeglasses, and the user interface was geared toward the young techie. But then they learned that there's tremendous demand for progressive lenses, which turned out to be pretty expensive. And virtually every older adult is going to need a set. And they started marketing to them, but not as old people. It was the same kind of hipster frames so you and your grandchild or child might go shopping together for glasses. Now that's over fifty percent of their revenues.

Are there certain fields that are the slowest to get this notion?

Some of the service industries have forced retirement ages to make room for the next generation. Manufacturing hasn't totally caught up.

Almost every industry needs to have a new concept about their longevity strategy.

The 'Five-Quarter Life'

You write about what you call "the five-quarter life" in an era of longer longevity. What does "the five-quarter life" mean?

When I was thinking about how we are not living a three-stage life anymore, I wondered: "How do we talk about life over a hundred years?" At first, I thought maybe it should be a four-quarter life. But then I realized, there's really this extra period. And we don't know what it looks like. So, I just called that the "fifth quarter."

"I read obituaries constantly and every time it's somebody over a hundred, I'm always so curious: What did they do with those years?"

I read obituaries constantly and every time it's somebody over a hundred, I'm always so curious: What did they do with those years? That excites me.

That excites me, too. But what worries me is the financial side of the fifth quarter.

This is the greatest challenge in our country. We don't have enough social safety nets, we don't have tax deductions along the way for caregiving or tax deductions if you go back to school in your later years, to work longer and earn more.

Most people are not saving and investing enough.

And there's no long-term care system in the country to help people pay for the costs of older age.

Right. Most people think Medicare is going to cover it and it's not.

Many Next Avenue readers are in their fifties or sixties. What do you want them to do with the idea of "stage, not age"? How can they put that into use as they're living their lives?

"Think of yourself — at whatever age you are — as someone with many capabilities and many ways to contribute."

They can do it in several ways. They can become advocates for themselves and not define themselves by age.

Think of yourself — at whatever age you are — as someone with many capabilities and many ways to contribute to society, to your family, to your company.

Thinking about starting something no matter what age you are is one of the most exciting things you can do.

Are there business opportunities that address the idea of stages for people who want to start a business in the second half of life?

I think if they look at their own list of where they've been frustrated, that's where they'll get an idea.

A whole sector that I think needs to expand is the idea of care navigators. If you're a caregiver, it is incredibly complicated to figure out how to build the infrastructure. Getting through the medical system in the United States can be complex.

Career transitions, career coaching and life-transition planning, I think, is a whole industry just ripe for older adults to take the lead because of their experience and their wisdom.

But starting something new, no matter your age, doesn't have to be about launching a business; it could it be learning a new skill, right?

Exactly. Or it could be volunteering with people who are different ages.

Don't get locked into "I'm in my retirement" stage or "I'm in my body hurts and everything's falling apart" stage. There's so much more you can enjoy.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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