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The Third Chapter

Passion, Risk, and Adventure
in the 25 Years after 50

by Sarah Lightfoot-Lawrence
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

A Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

I wish The Third Chapter had been available when I entered my own “third chapter.” The book by Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot puts the struggles and confusion of entering that little charted stage of life into clear perspective. Lawrence-Lightfoot interviewed 40 men and women to “… explore the ways in which men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 find ways of changing, adapting, exploring, mastering and challenging their energies, skills and passions into new domains of learning” (p. 7). She comments:

Each of their stories reveals the ways in which these people resist and challenge cultural caricatures that focus on the diminished power of people in their third chapters, stereotypes that would cast them as weaker, anachronistic and irrelevant (p. 131).

Sarah Lightfoot-Lawrence

In organizing and making sense of the collected information, the author used the theories of both Erik Erikson, famed Harvard psychologist, and life span theorists. According to both, this is the life stage during which individuals are confronted with the crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation”. Lawrence-Lightfoot explains:

…if Erikson’s seventh stage of development is not resolved productively, people in their third chapters will experience stagnation and often begin to indulge themselves as if they were their one and only child — a self-indulgence that inhibits their full development in the later stages of their lives (pp. 42-43).

Life span theorists build on Erickson’s theories but add a perspective that gives it more depth, complexity, and dimension. Gail Sheehy explained this framework best when she wrote the popular Passages and Pathfinders in the 1980s. Sheehy showcased individuals at each stage, pointing out how those individuals mastered the crisis of the specific life stage and how that mastery led to greater strength and happiness in future stages. She also penned the caution echoed in The Third Chapter: If not successfully resolved, the issue is carried into the next stage as a handicap. For instance, the child who does not learn language during formative years enters school at a distinct disadvantage when compared to classmates. This does not mean that failure in the next stage is inevitable, but it does mean that mastering the crises of the next stage will be more difficult.

Sheehy, however, did not give enough detail and color to “the third chapter” experiences to be of help to those wanting to understand that stage. It was left to Lawrence-Lightfoot to chronicle the challenges and successes of the individuals she interviewed. In doing so, she helps the rest of us see this developmental stage in a clearer light. Her findings confirmed what each of us has experienced and what Erikson and associates reported: “the inevitable tug between the positive and negative forces of progress and regression” — contradictions that must be dealt with before the tasks of this developmental stage can be successfully completed. Even the titles of each of the book’s chapters reflect these contradictions: “Loss and Liberation,” “Constancy and Change,” and “Looking Back and Giving Forward.”

These tasks are part of a newly identified developmental stage, a stage that focuses specifically on the years from 50 to 75. Recognizing that this cultural change can result in a deeper, richer understanding of the aging process, she noted:

What I am calling The Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture, one that comes along only once a century. It seems that every 100 years or so a new developmental phenomenon emerges on our cultural horizon. It becomes noticed and named and entered into the lexicon of our views and rhetoric about human experience (p. 9).

The individuals in Lawrence-Lightfoot’s study “no longer felt interested in or inspired by the lonely, solitary pursuit of making it to the top of the ladder of individual achievement, status and success”  (p.41). Instead, they wanted to find a way to use their privilege, skills, networks and access for the benefit of the broader community.

Lawrence-Lightfoot summarized her conclusions by commenting:

As people move from one developmental stage to the next, they are likely to experience the twin emotions of loss and liberation, despair and hope, pessimism and optimism. It is difficult to let go of the familiar, the routine, the proven, the daily rituals; so hard to relinquish your solidity, your expertise, your status and station and take the risk of embracing the new, the unproven, and the unfamiliar.

The men and women interviewed in The Third Chapter teach us much about the requirements of successful aging. We must continue to express curiosity about our world, adapt to shifts in our changing physical capacities, and engage new perspectives and skills—even if it means returning to school to master a new discipline. According to Lawrence-Lightfoot, “This requires the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure, seek guidance and counsel from younger generations and develop new relationships of support and intimacy” (p. 8).

There is no doubt that The Third Chapter will become required reading for students of the aging process as well as good source material for workshop leaders. The publisher's Web site provides a reading group guide which may be downloaded or viewed online.

The Third Chapter will also be helpful to readers of Itineraries as they try to understand the contradictions unfolding within their own beings. However, it does not speak to how the aging process unfolds within everyone. The men and women interviewed for the book were all well educated and relatively affluent. They had the emotional and financial resources to “explore new adventures, imagine different scenarios, and make unlikely choices” (p. 13). This was a best case scenario!

In other words, these individuals had successfully negotiated the earlier stages of their lives and arrived at their third chapters with the economic resources and physical vitality to embrace this “bold, new world”. Many have not been so lucky (or skillful). Their experience during the third chapter will be more challenging and difficult because they enter it with handicaps from earlier developmental stages.