In 1979, I published a book on the midlife search for self that had in it a chapter titled, “What Am I Going to Do With the Rest of My Life?” Then, I was writing about women who at forty found themselves facing a frighteningly empty future. As one woman put it: “Pretty much the whole of adult life was supposed to be around helping your husband and raising the children. I mean, I never thought about what happens to the rest of life. He doesn’t need your help any more and the children are raised. Now what?”
Much has changed in the intervening decades. Then, most forty-year-old women had devoted themselves to being wife and mother, only to awaken to the realization that they no longer knew who they were beyond the confines of those roles. Now, the same women have most likely been in the labor force for years and, as a result, have some broader, less elusive sense of self. Now, instead of bearing her first child at nineteen or twenty, a woman is likely to be twenty-six, and for a significant subsection of the population, much older, maybe even forty.
In mid-twentieth century, when American life expectancy hovered around sixty-five, questions about the “rest of life” presumed something like twenty more years, and it was mainly women who asked the question. Men knew what the rest of their lives would bring. If they were lucky enough to live that long, they’d work until retirement, then die shortly thereafter. Now, depending on race and class, a man who reaches the age of sixty-five might expect to live into his early eighties, a woman even later.
In fact, people over eighty-five represent the fastest growing segment of our population. As we live longer, healthier lives, the question, “Now what?” comes later, for some at sixty, for others not until seventy or more. No matter how delayed, the question will arise with the same inevitability that death itself arrives on our doorstep. Only it isn’t just women who ask the question, it is men as well—men whose sense of identity is threatened as they contemplate years without connection to those institutions and activities that structured their daily lives and gave it meaning.
It makes no difference what our station is, whether high or low, we will all stand at the abyss as, just by living so long, we are forced to look into a future we cannot know and confront the combination of hope and fear that accompanies that reality. “I wouldn’t know what else to do,” said Mike Wallace, the renowned television journalist, when, at eighty-eight, he was asked when he might leave the show at which he’d worked since 1968. When, a short time later, he suddenly announced his retirement without explanation, his former producer, Don Hewitt, speaking partly from his own experience, explained, “You get to a certain age . . . and you’re not as gung-ho as you thought you were going to be. But you hang onto who you were [emphasis added] because you don’t k...
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