Forces That Shape Your Life

Barbara Morris

During the past year, social and cultural expectations and lifestyle traditions relating to age, as well as the influence of the retirement culture, have played a huge role in how you as an older individual have changed and aged. You probably are not aware of how many of those expectations and traditions have influenced your aging process, and how you think about aging. 

If you think of yourself as “middle aged” you are particularly vulnerable to myths and misunderstandings about chronological age. 

The “Middle Age” Myth 

Even though the cultural definition of “old” has evolved to reflect the reality of a longer lifespan, at around age 40 many women (and men) begin to show stereotypical thinking and behaviors developed over time about what is appropriate thinking and behavior for “middle age.” 

We know “middle age” has arrived when same-age friends start to use expressions such as “I’m getting old,” “I’m not as young as I used to be”, “I’m too old to learn that”, “I’m having a senior moment,” or “I can’t do that anymore.” To establish camaraderie, friends laugh with each other about real or imagined “old age infirmities” and agree, yeah, it’s okay to grumble because “we are all getting old together.” 

Meaningless expressions suggesting decline spoken half in jest are powerful; the subconscious hears and accepts them as truth, and when repeated often enough, they become real to us. The truth is that mindless negative banter is aging. 

But, does “middle age” exist anymore? After taking into consideration that the lifespan has increased by 30 years in the past century, Dr. Helen Harkness provides a more up to date way to look at any given age in her revolutionary book, Don’t Stop the Career Clock. Her reality-based model for aging on page 79 shows “middle age” no longer exists: 

Young adulthood: 20-40
First midlife: 40-60
Second midlife: 60-80
Young-old: 80-90
Old-old: 2-3 years to live 

Doing What’s Expected 

In addition to outdated thinking about what constitutes “middle age” and meaningless expressions that advance decline, there are age-specific things that influence aging. For example, government programs and activities designed specifically for retirees are all over the place. You can play cards, take a class on anything from scrapbooking to Zumba to investment strategies, take a bus trip, or participate in some other activity at a senior center. It’s good to stay busy but the point is, it’s all leisure/retirement oriented. Little or nothing is offered to encourage development of goals or long range projects. And why should it? After all, it’s retirement! It’s all predicated on the idea you won’t live long enough to reach goals, so why bother. 

Why bother? Remember, the lifespan has increased by 30 years. The older years can be our most productive years. If you are healthy you may be around far longer than you expect. You are done with the follies of youth; you have developed wisdom (hopefully!) and have more than a few hard won experiences that toughened/softened you up.  Remember Col. Sanders began his KFC enterprise very late in life. While you may not yearn to be another Col. Sanders, you can be, or at least try to be, what you have always wanted to be, but it won’t happen playing bingo at the senior center with retirees who were never encouraged (or wanted) to reach their full potential. 

Unless you have a strong conviction about how you want to live your life, you will participate in passive, living-life-as-a pastime activities sooner than later. That said, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the company of those who derive pleasure from the traditional lifestyle, but please understand that if you become part of a decline oriented lifestyle that appears to be fun, or because it’s expected “at your age” you are starting down a one way street that rarely has an exit. 

That is important to understand because at some point you may feel the need to get off that path because you become bored or need extra income and want to reconnect with the working world. Unfortunately, at that point, you will no longer be prepared for re-entry. In retirement change happens so quickly and surreptitiously that it isn’t noticed. In a very short time, you have changed, the culture has changed, and your thinking is in a very different place. I have often heard a healthy retired woman lament, “I wish I had a job but who would hire me.” Inherent in that statement is, “I don’t think I’m competent any more” and the truth is, she probably is not, but could be if she decided to learn a marketable skill. However, that would make her “different” and regarded by retired friends as a bit of a pariah, and rather than suffer that fate, she would stick with life as it is. 

The Reality of Retirement 

Even though the lifespan has increased by 30 years, people in good health, capable of many more years of productivity, continue to retire at age 65 if not before. The retirement industry, along with an adequate 401k, Social Security and Medicare, make possible just about every imaginable “want” or “desire” a retiree could wish for, making retirement a “no brainer.” 

For sure, everybody deserves their retirement but humans are not designed to retire, and choosing to do what is alien to the mind and body takes a toll in the form of insidious decline. That sounds harsh and shocking, and many retirees would be offended by that assertion, but it’s true. Instead of recognizing that reality, the mental and physical devastation that occurs with retirement is labeled “age related decline.” Of course, passage of time plays a role in decline but the real culprit is a lifestyle intended for leisure, and leisure devoid of goal-oriented purposeful activity leads to decline. The old cliché applies: Use it or lose it. 

Remember, retirement is not a normal part of life. Retirement in this country as a right began with passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s. Soon after, a lucrative retirement industry began to evolve that spawned a leisure oriented mindset and lifestyle that has changed thinking and attitudes about “old” people and how they could and should live. 

Thinking and Living Beyond Boundaries 

If you are a boomer, learn to recognize and avoid the lures, pitfalls and traps you will encounter as you continue to mature. (The assumption is that you will remain reasonably healthy. A long-term health care policy should be in place on the chance you may be stricken with Alzheimer’s or other catastrophe.) 

Here we go: 

Contemporary retirement planning for the most part assumes that your retirement will be traditional and all you need to do is make certain you have enough money to last as long as you last. That is short sighted. While financial planning is necessary, it’s not enough. By age 40 at the latest, it’s crucial to chart a deliberate course for your life, one NOT guided and facilitated by tradition and prevailing cultural thinking and expectations. That requires constant awareness of how and what you are thinking about and how you want to spend not just your money, but also, the rest of your life. 

Even though the culture will label you a senior, please, do not refer to yourself as a senior, or internalize in any way that you are a senior because it will gradually skew your thinking and behavior into becoming more leisure (read “decline”) oriented. To the extent possible, deliberately avoid becoming part of the senior culture. I say “to the extent possible” because the senior culture is very inviting. It starts drawing you in, even before you retire. It offers perks and benefits that are hard to resist. For example, “senior coffee” offered at age 50, or senior communities intended for those “50 or better” kick start the senior identity process. 

When you have worked all of your adult life, possibly at something not fulfilling, it’s easy to fall for the enticing “I worked hard and deserve my retirement” mantra that legitimizes retirement and drives most people into retirement. Think: Is traditional retirement what you really want? Why do you want it? Sure, you worked hard and deserve your retirement and you are tired of the daily grind, but do you really understand the long-term risks (yes, the risks!) as well as the benefits of the traditional retired lifestyle? Instead, have you considered designing a future that is a balance between leisure and productivity, perhaps turning a part time hobby into an enjoyable and profitable business? The time to investigate and plan is before you retire. 

Some specifics before and after retirement: 

  • Deliberately try to separate yourself from all things “senior.” You are “mature.” No need to categorize or “pigeon hole” yourself beyond that.
  • Skip the “aging gracefully” nonsense. It’s part of the senior mindset package.
  • Don’t volunteer your age unless it serves a useful purpose. When with same age women, don’t deliberately reveal your age if it’s clear you look better/younger than they do. Creating envy is not cool. 
  • Prisoners are given a number to establish their identity. Don’t use your chronological age to establish your identity. You are an ageless body, mind, and soul, free to transcend outdated cultural and traditional limitations.  
  • Instead of joining senior organizations, invest time in groups and individuals that are not age segregated or age oriented, that celebrate and value purpose and maturity. It’s important to associate with younger people to keep a balanced view of what’s going on in the world and not be intimidated by change. I will never forget a retired woman who complained that change was happening too fast; she didn’t understand it, and she was terrified because she didn’t feel she could cope with it.
  • Consider long-term risks/benefits before buying into a senior community. If you enter at age 50, while fun at first, as you continue to age, eventually the walls around the community will become your world, particularly if you no longer drive. That could be a benefit to have caring, understanding neighbors close by. On the other hand, it could be an emotional burden. With a concentration of so many chronologically old people, eventually you will experience an inordinate amount of sickness and death, a depressing reminder that your end is near as well. Who needs that?  
  • Connect with those still employed, or have traded lifelong work for a new and more exciting career, or have their own business. A good way to be connected is to find work. Volunteering is okay as long as whatever you do is more than “busy work” such as being a greeter or giving directions (“The cafeteria is on the third floor”). Wearing a cute uniform doesn’t mean you are doing anything more demanding than looking cute. Volunteer work should be challenging and of value for you as well as others. 

That’s my advice, developed from experience and close observation of seniors and the retired lifestyle. At 84 I am doing things “old” people are not supposed to be able to do and I am firmly convinced it’s because I have not allowed myself to develop a senior mindset or live the traditional retired lifestyle. Suzanne Somers says she’s going to live to 110 and probably will, not just because she has resources to support her healthy longevity, but ecause
she is determined to live beyond traditional limitations. I expect to join in her 110th birthday celebration.

Following my advice requires re-thinking about what you believe about “getting old.” It means being willing to challenge and reject traditions and expectations that do not serve you well. You can’t avoid being chronologically old, but you can certainly make an effort to design how you live when you are “old”. As long as you live, life can have meaning and purpose, but it’s up to you to try to make it happen while still capable of making choices. 

Finally, I recognize that everyone is different with different aspirations and obviously, when it comes to lifestyle, “one size does not fit all.” This article has been written from the perspective of “my size” – what works for me, and is intended to be thought provoking. I firmly believe that many people enter retirement without much thought other than “I’m tired and I wanna play golf” but later on have second thoughts about where they are in life and wish they had done things differently in preparation for retirement. 

Better to be forewarned and armed for battle than unprepared.



  1. Barbara, the concerns you raise are both true and daunting.  Our current version of retirement costs us–both as individuals and as a country.  Personally, we stop getting the most out of life when we start telling ourselves all this baloney about being old.  (According to Dr. Oz, over 70% of what we blame on “old” is actually caused by lifestyle choices.)  Then we linger in the purgatory of “too old to work/to young to die” bored and boring because we didn’t plan for more than tootling around in the motorhome and hitting the golf course twice a week.

    As a nation, it’s even worse.  If we got retirement right–where we all found the best way to enjoy who we’ve become AND contribute to society in some way (job, volunteering, creative efforts), both Medicare and Social Security would be solvent for as long as we need them–which would probably not be forever because they are about “old” which we really don’t ever have to be, as you so aptly explained.

    Thanks for getting an important conversation going. 

  2. Lura Zerick says

    Well said, Barbara! Our actions are the result of our thoughts. A positive mindset brings positive results. When we decide, ‘I’m too old to do that’, our life is literally over and we will never enjoy the priceless sense of accomplishment that could have been ours. You are a terrific example that our abilities don’t stop at a certain age. I appreciate the encouragement that you give to others.

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