Adventure Ahead: Making the Most of Your Third Chapter
Educators champion lifelong learning for their students, but the nuances of what this phrase means for adults often go unexamined.
Closing ASCD's 2011 Annual Conference, Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot shared a page from her latest book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, about the learning that happens between the ages of 50 and 75. The book is the culmination of two years of interviewing men and women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s to document new ways in which individuals are embracing life before true retirement to try out new careers that often defy traditional norms.
Every day, Lawrence-Lightfoot told the crowd, 10,000 baby boomers turn 60, and they want a productive alternative to retirement. Lightfoot's work investigates the sources of inspiration after 50, the major barriers to new learning, and how learning at this age is different than any other period of our lives.
Reinvention in the third chapter is filled with poignant paradoxes: loss and liberation, constancy and change, work and exuberant play, excitement and terror, and feeling mature and childlike, said Lawrence-Lightfoot.
Over and again, Lawrence-Lightfoot encountered individuals in their third chapter who were yearning to connect their individual learning to their broader community, or to give forward, she said. But there are barriers—third-chapter learners must choose change over constancy or risk stagnation. Crossing the boundary of the familiar into new territory, where vulnerability and possible failure lurk, is hard. You may have to confront and transform deep-seated ideas about yourself and how you learn.
This metamorphosis process can have a butterfly effect on societal beliefs about the purpose and boundaries of schooling in the 21st century. Singular ambitions, conformity, and winner-takes-all paradigms will shift under the groundswell of boomers breaking down barriers to risk taking, collaboration, and engaged citizenship in the third chapter of their lives.
Education policy must change from standardization, narrow curriculum, regulation, and "racing to the top" to learning (in and out of the classroom) articulated across the life cycle, said Lawrence-Lightfoot.
Third-chapter learners are setting a new tone for life after 50. For schools, they are the potentially untapped and abundant community resource. For educators in their third chapter, Lawrence-Lightfoot advised, your adventure awaits—now is the time to be pioneers of purpose.