Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Says Today's Seniors Seek to Redefine Success in Unconventional Ways During the Third Chapter of Their Lives

Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot walked the 142 steps from her home in the South End to the local library the other day, where a packed room of neighbors and library patrons awaited her. "It's good to be home," she said appreciatively. Reading from her book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after Fifty, the distinguished author and professor of sociology reminded the audience that, each day, 10,000 Americans turn 60. They are healthier, live longer, and represent a specific new demographic group in the 21st century the way 'adolescents' were newly defined in the 20th. They feel less bound by traditional rules, want to reinvent themselves more readily, and hope to leave a legacy that makes a positive difference. "We've honed our expertise," she said, "we're re-calibrating the meaning of success and want to look back and give forward." In assessing what new thinking might help people navigate the Third Chapter more easily, Lawrence Lightfoot, who is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, focused on four areas: education, which by encouraging specialization at too early an age discourages later learning choices that may be very different but more suitable; the need for an intergenerational compact of 'respectful reciprocity' that reduces competition between young and old by means of mentoring and apprenticeships; crossing boundaries between race, class, gender and age to help us make a "bodacious leap of faith" into different arenas we may be fearful of; and a public discourse that uses imagery and innovation to infuse the purpose of our lives with a more collective view, rather than just individual achievement.

Elaborating on these themes in response to many questions, Lawrence Lightfoot suggested, for example,  that in the classroom the concept of how long "wait time" can be matters. Referring to the time a child is allowed by the teacher to answer a question, wait time has been decreased to accommodate larger classes or packed curriculum requirements. But by asking too many questions that have only one correct answer, a child may not develop a necessary comfort level with open-ended questions, or those with multiple answers, and circumscribe new learning later on in life. In a different setting, the institutions people interface with daily, like banks or medical clinics, employees too easily refer to older people as "honey" or call them by their first name, infantilizing them. "We have to learn to say, "don't call us that," Lawrence Lightfoot stated firmly. With respect to her own Third Chapter transformations, she said she cares less about what people think of her, and that she has taken up long-distance swimming again.

Answering another question about her most recent book, Exit: the Endings That Set Us Free, Lawrence Lightfoot explained that it is not a sequel to The Third Chapter, but an exploration of the premise that we live in a society pre-occupied with beginnings. "We ignore the departures," she asserted. For this book, she looked at many 'exits' and found that instead of the negative space of regression and loss it is made out to be, it is a process that can unlock the regenerative powers 'that set us free.'.

FOSEL inquired whether the author would want to return to explore this subject further, and she did not turn us down. Stay tuned.