When I turned 60 I quit my job as a law firm partner, moved to another city, and entered a university program for people looking to re-create themselves for their next chapter.
A few months after the program ended, I put my house on the market, sublet the tiny apartment I’d been living in as a “student,” rented a new place in my new city, took a job in a field I’ve never worked in before, asked a guy out on a date, and Marie Kondo-ed my closet.
Getting older often means taking fewer risks. It shouldn’t.
I don’t mean that we should take up rock-climbing in our 60s or invest our retirement savings in a friend’s start-up. I mean risks of a deeper and greater kind.
I mean taking risks in order to create the life you want, whether that means a new job or a new chance or a new community or a new way to be useful or a new perspective on life. The kind of risks that make the future both less predictable and more interesting. The kind of risks that may wound your heart or heal it.
In the last 100 years, we’ve added an extra 30 years of life expectancy to the average American’s life, due to a combination of a safer and more reliable food supply, better health and sanitation habits, and huge medical advances. But both the quality of these extra years and the question of how to use them are up for grabs. The only thing we can control are the decisions we make going forward. The decisions we make at age 60 will determine the life we have at age 85.
There is no guarantee that we’ll make it to 85 even with the better averages. My friend Sandra just died at the age of 58; Adam, at 62. Both were brilliant, with a list of accomplishments as long as my arm. Neither would have imagined, when we first met 30+ years ago, that the clock was ticking so fast. I can’t say whether they would have done anything differently if they had known. I only know that for me, the answer is, “Yes, there is more that I want from my life.” So for me, the time to act is now.
In our 60s we have less to lose, not more. If you’re a parent your kids are likely grown and, if we’re lucky, they are independent in all the important ways. This may be the time in our lives when we are, for the first time, truly free.
If we’ve learned nothing else by this point in life, most of us have gained some resilience. Everyone has been knocked around some. Failure doesn’t feel as devastating as it did when I was younger. If someone says “no,” I just look for another option.
By 2040, 1 in 5 Americans will be over 65; now, it’s about 1 in 7. The research is clear: older people engaged in something meaningful fare better, and create less of a drain on society’s resources, than people who have given up on creating a better life. Finding that purpose and engagement requires … taking risks.
Just as I’m not arguing for skydiving, I’m not saying that everyone needs to upend their life like I did. Maybe the risk is just signing up for a class in an area you thought about in college, but didn’t pursue.
Maybe engagement will come from learning some aspect of popular culture that has always seemed opaque. (In my case, that was soccer. So I started to follow the Women’s World Cup, to the point where I set my alarm to get up and watch the finals early on the West Coast so no one could tell me the results.)
In the future I’d like to try — again — to learn French. Most importantly, I want to work on a project, or a bunch of projects, that are meaningful to me, even as I age into the territory where women, anyway, have often been viewed as irrelevant and invisible.
Risks don’t have to be huge, and the consequences don’t have to be permanent. They just need to lead us to a place where we look forward to getting up in the morning and can envision feeling that way 30 years from now. The first step might be learning something new. Or maybe it just means cleaning out the closet to make room for what comes next.
I was in a position to do these things because my parents, both born in rural communities and growing up in homes marked by alcoholism and poverty, made sure that my siblings and I had a chance at a better life. I went to good schools, got a law degree, did well, and had the means to take my chances on early retirement.
My mother never finished college and could not have dreamed of having such control over her decisions, particularly as a divorced older woman. She has been gone seven years now, but I like to think that, wherever she ended up, she is applauding me.
Susan Nash retired from her career as a lawyer at the age of 60 to spend a year as a Fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity and is about to become the Project Manager Encore Fellow with the City of San Jose’s Age-Friendly City program.