by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
The author, a professor of sociology at Harvard, uses forty detailed oral case studies of people – all educated, successful, and financially secure – between the ages 50 and 75 to delineate the new ways of learning such people develop. She argues that people in this age range (which she calls the “Third Chapter”) is undergoing a slow cultural reorientation, from being thought of as a time of quiet retirement and seclusion to an active, giving, creative reengagement. It is also characterized by a painful process of reexamining priorities and experiencing the tension of contradictory impulses: the need to confront old ghosts vs. the need to “give forward” to the next generation; the lettering go of formal school skills vs. the embrace of a new, collaborative, public way of learning; the desire to accomplish something with the few years left vs. the realistic acceptance that success come slowly, through failure; etc.
It’s an interesting assessment; though I’m not a Third Chapter denizen yet, I found some degree of inspiration and optimism from the case studies (retirees going to work in war zones, public gardens, throwing themselves into new fields like piano and acting). I have some minor cavils, such as repeated misspellings (“peak” for “peek” – not a huge deal, but in an academic work like this, these errors erode the author’s credibility). And although Lawrence-Lightfoot’s authorial voice is warm and sincere, the prose is rather turgid and prolix the way such academic essays tend to be: the introduction which repeats main points given in the chapter, the conclusion which re-repeats those points; the tendency to paraphrase and quote someone (“he feels fortunate (‘truly blessed’)”… - why both?). My major objections to the argument, however, are that (a) it uses a small sample of privileged people to make generalizations about reengagement at this stage of life – which the author acknowledges; (b) it ends by advocating a massive overhaul of our cultural mores and assumptions about the elderly, our education system, and inter-generational collaboration – which is not helpful for those wishing a practical guide to reengagement; and (c) I wonder if this “new way of learning” isn’t particular to the Third Chapter, or any age group, but anyone going through any transition, really.