In the 21st century, you live your life on a high-speed motorway, with multiple lanes, intersections and exits, and with the destination a lot further away – and you have no updated psychological route map to help navigate your course.
Consider just two paradoxical changes. More years were added to the average life expectancy in the 20th century than in all previous millennia combined.
In the blink of an eye, says Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, the length of time that we are living has doubled. You are now living in the era of the 100-year life. Most babies born since the year 2000 in developed countries can expect to live to be 100 or older. If you've already made it to adulthood, and are in reasonably good shape, there's a good chance of living into your 90s. And whether you do or not, you must live and plan as if you will.
Yet, for all the extra time you have to live, you have become time-poor. “How are things?” you ask someone, and the answer is likely to be, “Busy, busy, busy.”
The period extending roughly from your late 20s to sometime in your early 60s has now become the ‘rush hour of life’ – when you establish yourself in work, find a soulmate, settle down and raise a young family. No sooner have you done all that than you find yourself facing the onset of middle age – and all the questions, challenges and opportunities that life stage brings with it.
Now, put these two realities together. The amount of time you have to live has doubled, yet a full third of your adulthood is now a “rush hour”. That’s just one of the many changes and challenges you face in the new life course.
Reaching adulthood takes so long that you have to negotiate a new in-between life stage, emerging adulthood, which extends from the end of adolescence to the late 20s or even early 30s. This new stage exerts an upward pressure on the timing of all the rest, which now start and finish later. Young adulthood does not properly begin until your early 30s and extends well into your late 40s, which in turn means that middle age does not begin until around the age of 50 and then lasts into your late 60s.
And then? Well, there’s a long way to go until old age, so there’s another new in-between stage.
In the USA, nearly half of those aged 65 to 69 and one-third of those in their early 70s consider themselves to be middle-aged - for want of a better term. I have called it late adulthood - the stage of your life when you know that you have definitely passed the midway mark but you certainly don’t feel ‘old’, and being called a pensioner is very much out of step with your lived experience because your desires, motivations and the way you want to live your life are subtly different from what they were in middle age, or what they will be in old age.
Old age does not begin now until near 80 – or at the onset of physical frailty or prolonged ill health. But while the onset of old age is later, it also lasts longer, and how independently you can live at that stage has become an urgent and pressing issue.
This is an extract from Your One Wild and Precious Life: How to be Happy, Fulfilled and Successful at Every Age by Maureen Gaffney, which is published by Penguin on September 16th. You can pre-order the book here