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Aug. 10, 2022, 5:00 a.m. EDT

You’re not just a number: think of life as stages, not ages

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By Richard Eisenberg

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

There’s a serious problem in America, says longevity expert Susan Wilner Golden, in the way many of us — and businesses — view people over 60: as a monolithic group.

In her new book, “ Stage (Not Age) ,” Golden makes a case that chronological age no longer defines us, especially in the second half of life. It’s the  stage of life we’re in  that’s most important. A 50-year-old and a 75-year-old, Golden says, may well be in the same stage of life, what she calls the “reinvention stage.”

That stage, she writes, follows the growth stage and the subsequent career and family stage, and it precedes what Golden labels the “closing” stage.

Golden, director of the Stanford University Distinguished Career Institute’s dciX impact  initiative , thinks people 60+ (she calls them “the fastest-growing, most dynamic market in the world”) are frequently misunderstood.

Also see: Why life in your 70s may be your happiest ever

You are not your grandparents

What’s more, she writes, some people over 60 fall into society’s trap of assuming their usefulness and ability to enjoy life are fading fast.

“People tend to think the way it’s been is the way it’s always going to be,” Golden, who is also an adjunct professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, told me. “They saw that their parents, or their grandparents, didn’t live into their 80s or beyond very often, so they assume, ‘Well, that’ll be my situation.’ But you know, clearly for many people, it won’t be.”

To learn more about viewing life through the prism of stages, I recently interviewed Golden, a former venture capitalist and med school professor who advises companies about their longevity strategies.

Richard Eisenberg: What inspired you to write “Stage (Not Age)”?

Susan Wilner Golden:  That came about after I was a DCI fellow [in her 60s] and was spending some time at the Stanford Center on Longevity. I learned about Merrill Lynch’s longevity strategy for its clients and for their employees.

Financial institutions have been among the first in the private sector to recognize the need, and the opportunity, related to longer life. People are going to need more money if they’re going to live to a hundred, they’re going to need to rethink when, and if, they retire, and their life priorities will be different at different points.

I thought this was the most vibrant period of my life. And I looked around my DCI cohort — we ranged in age from 50 to mid-70s, but we were in the same  stage . We were rethinking: What do we want to do next? What were our life priorities?

So I started thinking it’s wrong to think about age defining you. It really is stage.

Why is it important to think that way as we get older?

Because too many people think ‘I’m done. I can’t start something new. I can’t learn something new.’ And that’s absolutely not true.

In your book, you write about 50 labels for older people, including “seniors,” “explorers,” “perennials,” “vintage” and “modern elders.” Do you like any of them?

We need better language because there’s ageism in the language, calling people “senior” or “elderly.”

I came up with a concept that we’re not in elderhood or seniorhood, we’re in furtherhood. That came from a conversation with a friend; we’re going further and we’re looking forward to it. This can be truly a Renaissance period in your life when you’re rethinking what to do and you know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.

Traditionally, people have heard there are three stages in life — you learn when you’re young, then you earn and then you retire. But you think that no longer makes sense. Why?

I think the three-stage life made sense when people only lived to 65. But if you’re living another 40 years or so, you just can’t have a stage called retirement for 40 years. It doesn’t make sense from a life-activity standpoint, from a purpose standpoint or from a financial standpoint.

So, I began thinking about the stages that we’re going through. And they’re  not  sequential.

In your early stages, you’re learning, but you’re going to need to be a  continuous  learner to keep going further.

What do you mean by the “reinvention” and “closing” stages and how are they different from retirement?

In the reinvention stage, yes, you may stop working where you have been, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to retire from working or from having a purpose. In this time period, it’s resetting your life priorities. It’s rethinking what you might want to do. You may have many talents you want to deploy in different ways.

There are a whole lot of people who are in that reinvention stage. And that’s where I think you should try resetting your priorities — financially and from a time standpoint.

I think of this as a very entrepreneurial stage. We know from research the  Kauffman Foundation  has done that the majority of successful companies, except in the very high-tech world, are developed by people over 50.

And this reinvention stage doesn’t necessarily start at age 60 and end in your late 60s either, right?

No, it could start in your 40s or your 50s. You can also be reinventing yourself in your 70s and 80s, too. The reinvention stage is really the exciting one.

The rise of ‘returnships’

What is it going to take so more people understand the idea of reinvention?

I think we need to profile more people who start new chapters very successfully.

And to get more employers hiring older adults without judgment, without ageism, knowing that they can be valuable. There are a lot of companies that are starting “ returnships ” for people who’ve taken a career break for whatever reason.

The labor shortage in teaching, in medicine and nursing is going to force employers to say: “These people who we retired could easily help us fill the needs and they want to — but in a more flexible schedule.”

When the job market is not as tight as it is now, will age discrimination return as employers say “We’re not interested in hiring   people over 60 because they’re unproductive or don’t have technology skills or just want to retire?”

It could happen. It’s interesting that ageism is not considered part of the traditional diversity equations [of employers], but it absolutely should be. Research shows that multi-age teams are more productive than teams where everyone is a similar age.

And I’d say to employers: How are you possibly going to design all these new products and services for the longevity economy unless you have a mixed-age workforce? It’s a huge, missed opportunity if business is not thinking about ways to retain, or import, older adults in their workforce.

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