By Anne Button
You can trek to the mountains to catch the changing aspen, but there’s really nothing better than walking around a Sloan’s Lake transformed into an autumn kaleidoscope of gold and amber, with the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot.
The bursts of warm weather that have punctuated fall this year feel like an additional, unexpected gift.
Our “second summer,” a term the American Meteorological Society recommended in 2020 to replace the outdated “Indian Summer,” is a bonus. When it hits, we feel the urge to hike, picnic, go to the farmer’s market – all the things we thought in May we’d get to over the summer but never did.
It brings to my mind the second summer of our lives: the extra time we are getting because most of us are living longer.
Thanks to a variety of factors, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased 20-30 years over the last century, from 48 in 1900 to 79 today. These extra decades don’t just change the length of our lives; they change the map of our lifespan.
A whole new stage of life is appearing between adulthood and old age.
British historian Peter Laslett first identified in the late 1980s what he called the “third age,” the time after childhood, careers and child-rearing, but before frailty and decline. It has since been given many names, including second adulthood, middlescence, encore years, third quarter.
Whatever the label, it’s relatively uncharted territory. No wonder Laslett described this stage as “a world entirely unknown to all previous Americans.”
For nearly 100 years, we’ve followed a familiar script: learn, work, retire at 65, then relax for a few years and wait to die. This made sense in the 1930s, when Social Security was established and people lived on average to 61. Less so today.
Many of us in our 50s and 60s, having gotten through the ultra-busy years of midlife careers and raising our kids, are now looking up and realizing we have extra time and space in our lives, surprising new assets we hadn’t thought much about in advance.
We’re realizing that the additional years brought by increased longevity aren’t tacked on to the end of our lives, when we may be frail or declining, they’re right now.
And they open a new window to do the things we may have wanted to in our earlier years but for whatever reason (mortgages, carpools, college tuitions and caring for aging parents, to name a few), we didn’t.
Another bonus: At this stage we no longer have to do what people expect of us. Freed from the tyranny of caring so much about what others think, we’re able to take risks and be a beginner again. But thanks to our accumulated knowledge and experience, with the more insightful and integrated “crystallized” intelligence that comes with age, being a beginner usually comes with a shorter learning curve.
We can’t ignore the fact that living longer also means our money needs to last longer. The Bell Policy Center’s 2022 State of Aging report found that one-third of Coloradans age 60 and older want to find meaningful paid or unpaid work. Really, who wants to play 30 years of golf? And who can afford it?
But most people want to work differently. Maybe it’s part time, or in a consulting role. Maybe it’s starting some new venture with a partner. Or, like Dr. Anthony Fauci said when he stepped away from government service at age 81 to “pursue the next chapter” of his career, it could be to use what they’ve learned to “inspire and mentor the next generation” in addressing new challenges.
Like the unexpected pleasure of a balmy October day in North Denver, the second summer or third age of life, in whatever shape it takes, presents a golden opportunity to do things differently, on our terms.
As Mick Jagger, now 80, sings in the new Rolling Stones album due out Oct. 20, “You think the party’s over/when it’s only just begun.”
(Pro-tip on soaking up the last of summer: The Highlands Farmers market ended Oct. 15, but others, like South Pearl Street, Cherry Creek, Boulder and Longmont, continue through November.)
Anne Button has lived in North Denver for nearly 30 years and raised two kids in the neighborhood. She is the founding director of the CU Denver Change Makers program, which helps older adults chart new paths. Learn more at ucdenver.edu/Change-Makers.