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Third Age, Decline or Fullness?Third Age, Decline or Fullness?

By Melita DeBellis, Midlife Unlimited

Midlife marks the beginning of what is known as “Third Age”. Third Age is an emerging life stage, running roughly from ages 50 to 75, made possible by our longer life expectancy. In essence it grants us a life bonus of 30 years not available to previous generations. Rich in possibilities and potential, it involves the creating of new roles and identity, a search for new meaning and profound change.

Third Age can be a time of renewal and transformation if we regard it as an opportunity as well as a challenge.

  • Its opportunity lies in seeing our life as full of possibility, as a process of continual and surprising unfolding—building on our past, envisioning our future and living a more fulfilling present—and in knowing that we can make decisions geared to regeneration and fulfillment.
  • Its challenge lies in its uniqueness. Third Age provides an unprecedented opportunity with few maps of how to get there. It challenges our “response-ability” – to respond to our life circumstance and to find fulfilling ways to contribute our gifts, talents, experience and wisdom in ways that matter to us.

Third Age requires us to make those daily choices which help us to co-create, along with the people and circumstances of our life situation, the kind of living we want to claim for ourselves in the second half of life.

What are the Four Ages of Life?

The framework of the four ages is very useful for understanding the opportunities and journey that correspond with midlife. Each of these “ages” is roughly about 20-25 years in a given life span and has the particular focus outlined here. For those with less longevity the Ages may be greatly compressed but usually each stage is included in some fashion. 

First Age: The Age of Preparation – our youth to roughly our early 20s.

In First Age we develop the skills and knowledge needed to support the maturity and independence that adulthood and Second Age requires. This is a time of growth and development in our family and community of origin. It contains periods of formalized learning and skills practice and time for discerning what we are attracted to in terms of work/career.  Here we may feel an initial sense of “vocation” or calling to a particular life style or type of work.

Second Age: The Age of Achievement – our early 20s through our 40s

In Second Age we strive to earn our place in the adult world of responsibility and seek to enjoy the security, status, and other external markers of our achievement, however modest. This is a time of establishing our own family and the social interests, activities and ties that form community. Through our varied accomplishments we gain a sense of and recognition for “success” in our chosen realm.

Third Age: The Age of Fulfillment – roughly age 50 – 75

In our Third Age, with our roles in our family changing, and through a shifting career or work focus, we can look more deeply within ourselves to find what gives us a sense of meaning, purpose and passion. This is a time when from the vantage point of long and varied experience we can take particular note of what is really important to us and how we want to “spend” the time remaining to us. During this period we can revisit/reclaim some of what we neglected along the way, clear out unwanted baggage, heal old wounds and see where we want to grow to become more balanced and whole—both as individuals and as integral parts of the immense web of life. As we do this work, involving mind, heart, body and spirit, we are able to make more intentional choices about how we want to live and how we want to contribute in order to make a difference as we mature into the fullness of our potential.

Fourth Age: The Age of Completion

This last stage of Earthly life allows us to review and revel in the fullness of our lives with “no regrets” and to prepare for whatever we believe comes next. This time of ever more heightened awareness and growing acceptance of our mortality can lead us to the peace and joy of surrender. All of our life is in one sense a preparation and prelude for this stage. Therefore growing to our full potential and living fully in Third Age allows us to enter even more completely and wholly into this stage of completion.

Even though we have periods of preparation, achievement, fulfillment and completion at many times throughout our lives, each of the four ages is distinguished by its distinct overall focus.

Third Age, then, as a major life phase actually begins whenever the opinions and achievements of the external world become less important and we begin to ask questions about what it all means, what really matters to us and how we want to be more mindful and intentional about how we choose to live and work. It involves a major shift for many of us from living according to the expectations of others to living even more authentically, from the inside out.

In Third Age our focus shifts to an internal sense of, and a desire for, personal fulfillment. External achievements and successes such as status, position, and income no longer motivate us as they once did. The opinions and achievements of the external world become less important.

We may experience a “midlife crisis” of sorts where we begin to consider, “Is this all there is?” “What else is there for me?” “What really, truly matters to me?” However, going more deeply into this questioning process, we can shift from living according to the expectations of others to living even more authentically from the inside out.

That requires the courage to ask ourselves questions like these:  

  • “How can I celebrate and enjoy living my life?”
  • “What are my passions and how can I let them lead me into my future?”
  • “How might I change my work into doing what I enjoy with people I care about?”
  • “Where can I make my most meaningful contribution?”
  • “How can I make the most of my Third Age so that my Fourth Age is truly a completion of my fulfilling and meaningful life?”

To paraphrase Thoreau, an examined life is a life worth living. And choices that arise from that examination lead us not only to survive but to fully thrive as we grow into the wisdom and fulfillment of that exploration.

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