Managing change is the key to longevity

Not to sound like a reverse mortgage ad, but if you are in the second half of life, there is some great news.

You will live much longer, and healthier, than you think. More and more of us will be as sound of mind and body at 80 as we were at 60. It's as though the extra years of life are added in the middle, not the end. Warnings of mental decline can be flawed by averaging errors, or by ignoring the fact that in important ways – like synthesizing knowledge – we actually get better as we age.

Traditional life stages of education, career and retirement are obsolete. Only 12% of us born after 1960 can expect to work in one place longer than 20 years. For all Americans, the average time at one job is under five years. The "magic age" of 65 was chosen in 1935 based on the life expectancy of people born in the 1870s. Today 65 and up is the fastest-growing segment in the workforce.

So if the old expectations are gone, what do we replace them with? And how do we take advantage of this "second middle age?"

A number of years ago, I worked on the Long Careers Project (funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the MacArthur Foundation) which tracked satisfaction and happiness later in life. We did deep dives into the lives of hundreds of Americans, some successful and well-known, some average citizens, all of whom were working past the normal retirement age, some working in their 90s or beyond.

One group reported a significantly greater sense of well-being. The single biggest factor for these individuals is that they made regular deliberate and intentional life and career changes throughout their working life. In other words, the opposite of the traditional 30-year career.

Managing transition is a surprisingly complex skill, but it can be learned. Retirement gets idealized as placid and calm, but change and major life transitions don't slow down as we get older. The folks who had serial careers were prepared for them. Today the majority of Americans of all ages have serial careers, and I am one of them.

As a writer, I've had to navigate regular change. As a way of earning a living, writing is less like being an "artist" and more like being a skilled tradesperson, like a decent finish carpenter, a skilled landscaper or dress-maker. But markets change. Fashions change. Expectations change. Financial realities change. To adapt as a writer, I've worked in show business, in corporate America, in public policy, and as a journalist. As an adult, I've made major cross-country moves five times and am planning for more.

I've learned a great deal about change, the good and the bad. I'm at the "traditional" retirement age, but I expect and hope to keep on adapting and changing and working as long as possible. Like those folks in the Long Careers Study, I hope the best predictor for happiness late in life, aside from financial security, is this willingness to embrace intentional and regular re-creation.

But even if you worked for the same organization for 30 years, you have also managed transitions. There have been disruptions in your work life, new job titles or industry and competitive changes. There are ways of looking at your career that can build confidence in your ability to handle the kinds of choices we all face.

As Joan Didion famously wrote in The White Album, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." It begins by looking at the way we describe our lives. The emerging field of narrative psychology looks at how the stories we tell give our lives structure and meaning.

Our stories are constantly evolving as we gain new perspectives, and they generally become more positive later in life. It's important to remember that many "successful" people's stories contain themes of redemption.

Transitions are powerful, complex, exhilarating, mysterious and sometimes frightening. Taking time to reflect on past transitions, learning from mistakes, and figuring out how to capitalize on your strengths is key. Take time to understand how you navigate change and learn to choose the kinds of change that are right for you. It's not about change for change's sake. If you are thinking about retiring, it might be best to delay that big move, especially if you haven't experienced major life/work transitions, or if you haven't handled them well.

Don't rush. If you've reached retirement age – whatever that means to you – chances are you still have decades of physical and mental health. And years of changes to come. Look to your own experience. Learn to face those challenges with what wisdom you have and with humility and grace.

Dennis Thread of Springfield is a freelance writer, director and producer experienced in theater, opera, immersive experiences, public ritual, film, TV and institutional and corporate communications. dthread@creativethread.com