Bruce Springsteen has always been a storyteller. Yet last year, at age 68, he found a whole new way to tell stories—on Broadway—and a whole new batch of stories to tell.
Mixed in with his older songs about working class rebellion and romances that ended badly, the Boss recounts tales of his life now to packed audiences at the Walter Kerr theater in New York City. Like how he dances with his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. And how much he misses his longtime friend and sax player Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011 after complications from a stroke at age 69, just a year older than Springsteen is now.
“Aging is scary but fascinating,” Springsteen wrote in his 2016 memoir Born to Run. “And great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways.”
Springsteen calls it morphing but the more common term these days is reinvention.
Whatever word you use, the dynamics are the same: You reach a turning point in your life when outside forces and inner yearnings combine to convince you that you need a new path to remain vital and relevant. Enlightenment is what happens, hopefully, along the way.
Often, the process starts at work, as young stars rise and technology reshapes the job market, and many older workers begin to feel marginalized. So you seek—or are forced to seek—a new way to make a living.
Or, with a keener sense of the passage of time, you may simply feel inspired to finally pursue a long-held professional dream.
But reinvention is happening in the more intimate aspects of our lives too. As health issues pop up and shifting family dynamics spur changes in our relationships with spouses, lovers, children, and parents, we naturally begin to more deeply ponder our purpose and our values.
The process of reinvention often isn’t easy. “Change is hard,” says Lynn Berger, a New York City career coach. “You have to take the time to understand what is happening, not just feel threatened and react.”
But when you come out the other side, the rewards are incalculable.
The long road to happy
The happiest people on earth are older than 55, surveys consistently show. At this age, people are the most positive and enjoy the greatest day-to-day satisfaction, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.
Gallup too has found that stress, worry, and anger all decrease with age. Worry, for instance, tends to peak around age 50 and steadily drop from there. The pattern is similar for stress and anger, which tend to be lowest for people in their 80s and 90s.
What Carstensen calls “the paradox of aging”—the older we get, the happier we are—is partly the result, for many people, of having more financial resources and fewer financial obligations. But it’s also a function of individuals recognizing that even as they age out of certain roles—think Clint Eastwood shifting from playing a tough guy to directing tough guys—they have much left to give and, critically, that they still have ample time, energy, and desire to stay in the game.
Put another way, your youth and middle years are emerging as a sort of training ground for what you’ll do with the last third of life, says UCLA psychologist Alan D. Castel in his new book Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. At midlife, you have enough life experience to take stock of what is important, dismiss what isn’t, and become what you want to be, he asserts.
Longevity is the driving force, as people now routinely live to 90, and 100-year-olds are the fastest growing age segment in the world.
But reinvention isn’t about just staying alive; it’s about making the extra years count. It’s about re-launching our life in a way that makes us smile.
“The first half of our life is about being interesting,” says Chip Conley, author of Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. “The second half is about being interested.”
What is reinvention, anyway?
At its heart, reinvention is about recognizing the changes happening to and around you and making a considered decision to adapt.
“There is usually an external event that triggers the thought, ‘Whoa, I’m in a whole new life stage,’” says Marci Alboher, a career specialist at Encore.org, a nonprofit that works to leverage the skills of older adults for the greater good.
That trigger could be a health scare, a job loss, a parent needing care, or the arrival of grandchildren. “These are catalysts for thinking about priorities in the next chapter,” Alboher says.
One clear sign of the wave of older adults actively pursuing a new act: People aged 55 to 64 are now the fastest growing group of new entrepreneurs, with their ranks up nearly 10 percentage points since 1996. At the same time, the percentage of new businesses started by younger people has been dropping.
The surge is partly fueled by layoffs, as older workers are edged out of jobs due to industry changes, high salaries, or ageism and find it difficult to get another position, due to—you guessed it—industry changes, high salaries, or ageism. Some 64% of older workers say they have personally seen or experienced ageism, according to a 2018 AARP survey.
But a more common motivation for starting a business among entrepreneurs past age 50 is to pursue a passion, cited by 42% of respondents in a survey by Guidant Financial, vs. just 15% who turned to business ownership because they were laid off.
And the happiness readings of these new entrepreneurs are off the charts: Three quarters rate themselves an eight or higher on a happiness scale of one to 10.
Age 50 is also a pivot point when you’re more likely to seek work imbued with greater personal meaning or social impact. Some 4.5 million people ages 50 to 70 say they’re currently working in these kind of careers and another 21 million say they’re preparing to do so, a study by Encore found.
It’s not just a work thing
Key relationships are changing too. And your definition of who you are vis-a-vis the people you love most is likely shifting as a result.
You may now be a caregiver to an aging parent, which is a whole new role-flipping self-identity, filled with challenges and poignancy. A typical adult aged 55 to 74 spends about twice as much time a day—three hours, on average—caring for a relative who doesn’t live with them as they do looking after their kids or other household members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That spurs another whole round of reinvention. After two decades or more of putting your role as Mom or Dad first in your personal life, how will you spend your newfound time? If you’re married, you may decide to rekindle the spark and share new pursuits—or, as a growing number are doing, just call it quits.
Of course, that’s also partly because those children are growing up, or already grown, and need you less. Hello, empty nest.
The numbers tell the tale: Though splits are becoming less common among couples under 40, the divorce rate among U.S. adults over 50 has doubled over the last 25 years, and for those over 65 it tripled, Pew found. Along with gray divorcees, there are 20 million widowers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Is 50-plus the time to find new love? The very thought of swiping right is enough to give many single adults ulcers.
But it shouldn’t. At this age, you are far more in touch with what you want from a relationship and far less likely to waste time on or fret over a poor fit.
It’s never too late. Some 70% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 63% of people 65-plus say they are in love, AARP found.
The business of reinvention
The goal is to be happy the next two or three decades of life. The key is to find your purpose; that thing that makes you welcome each day.
A cottage industry of advisers has surfaced to help. Do a search on “reinvent after 50” and you get 21 million results. Yeah, it’s a thing.
Conley, for example, isn’t just an author. He is a 24-year hotel industry CEO who at age 52 reinvented himself as a strategic adviser for Airbnb, where he was twice the age of the average employee and served both as an intern and a mentor.
Now at 57, he’s founded the Modern Elder Academy, which conducts workshops where midlifers explore the value of their experiences and wisdom in the face of new challenges and changing norms.
Reinvention in this case doesn’t come cheap: Located in a resort-like beach location in Mexico’s Baja California Sur, the one-week program costs $5,000 ($3,500, if you share a room) and $10,000 for the two-week “immersion” version.
Career coach Lynn Ryder runs a similarly-themed “Reinvent Yourself After Fifty” workshop through her website ($110 for a four-hour seminar; $100/hour for private coaching), and there are many others. “Our clients are not sure what they should be doing next,” says Paul Cronin, founder of the Successful Transition Planning Institute.
“They all bring a different concern—work, health, relationships, spirituality,” Cronin notes. “Once they start working through their issues, though, they realize it is all integrated and they are just looking for a purpose.”
The movement has gone beyond private workshops. Stanford, Harvard, University of Minnesota, and University of Texas each offer year-long courses for midlifers looking to relaunch their life.
Not all the academic programs require that kind of time commitment. Twice a year, Paths to Creative Retirement at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of North Carolina, Asheville, hosts weekend boot camps to help midlifers find their new selves.
“We ask people to consider a lot of questions,” says Catherine Frank, executive director. “Our participants tend to have epiphanies throughout the weekend.”
One participant, a child sign language instructor, came to realize his essential skill and interest was in listening and translating. He ended up volunteering as a guardian in children’s court, ensuring that young children’s interests were understood.
Others seek spirituality, which is a core part of the reinvention process for many. Some 40% of boomers have switched religions, Pew found.
They are also experiencing spirituality on their own terms: 45% of boomers meditate at least once a week, and a third more pray than attend religious services.
How to get reinvention right
Reinvention is a journey, not a moment. Central to most programs on the subject is self-reflection—what do you want your next 30 years to look like?—then action.
Consider your health. The winners in the longevity revolution will be those who extend their vital years, not their old age. It isn’t easy to get off the couch if you have led a fairly sedentary lifestyle and regularly dined on fast food—or some version of that regimen. But, so what? Part of reinvention is adopting better habits.
Many midlifers are doing exactly that. Some 14 million people over 55 have taken up yoga, up from 4 million in 2012, the Yoga Alliance reports. Cycling, hiking and canoeing are among boomer activities on the rise, reports the Physical Activity Council.
And the results of all that extra effort are in: Men who switched from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one at an average age of 53 increased aerobic fitness by 18% and heart functionality by 25%, one study found.
“It’s dawning on people that even if they haven’t been healthy before they still have time to get healthy,” says Ken Dychtwald, co-founder of Age Wave, which has studied boomers for three decades.
Yes, you can learn from millennials
Remain curious and adopt a beginner’s mindset, Conley says. You might try that with any new pursuit, from painting to blogging. Be a learner.
This is especially true in the workplace, where new technologies can make you feel irrelevant at 35 but where you will need to remain longer if you live to 90 or 100.
Your life experience, which translates to wisdom, is your chief skill. Don’t undervalue it. Three-quarters of millennials want a mentor, Conley contends. But they don’t want to be preached to, and they have much to offer in return to a curious midlifer.
“Evolve, learn, collaborate, counsel,” says Conley. “The biggest mistake most midlifers make is going to the counseling role before building the credibility [by doing] the first three.”
The enemy is not time, it’s inertia
The top indicator of likely failure at the reinvention game is inertia. “Are you taking the steps you need to take?” asks Berger. Have you analyzed the skills you need to move on—and gotten training? Have you embraced networking to broaden your contacts? Have you scanned the offerings at a local college? Have you joined a meetup group?
That’s the practical side. But there’s a psychological side too. Do you see new pursuits—not just at work, but with your health and social life—as a chore, or as an opportunity to grow?
“Examine major life transitions, like marrying, having kids, and taking a new job,” says Cronin. “What did you learn? Probably, that you know how to adapt. You’ve done it before. Why not now?”
Engage with others who have made the kind of changes you envision. “Hearing from others who have already done it is huge,” says Frank.
Mostly, reinvention is about finding purpose and doing what makes you happy. Even with a long runway, as midlifers our time is nonetheless running short.
The time to start is now.