The Evolution of Adulthood: A New and Fourth Stage

We need to discard the negative attitudes about aging and recognize that we have a large and growing talent pool of older people who can significantly contribute to the country's economic growth and social well-being.
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We're all familiar by now with the three stages of adulthood: Early adulthood from 18-40, mid-adulthood from 40-62 and mature adulthood from 62-85. Dr. Elliott Jaques and I proposed a third stage of adulthood from 62-85 in a paper we co-authored in 2000, "The Evolution of Adulthood: A New Stage," and I believe this stage is now generally recognized as well.

However, I now propose that we make room for a fourth stage of adulthood from 80 to 100 by redefining the second stage to be from 40 to 60 and the third stage from 60 to 80. The reality is that more people are now working into their 80's and 90's, not only because they need or want the additional income, but also because they want to be productively engaged and to continue adding value.

My premise is that we should not merely define this additional phase of adulthood, but also look at what people in this stage of life can offer to society. Now, more than ever before, it's important to acknowledge and use the resources of all age groups that can add value. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the labor force participation rate for workers 65-69 increased from 18.4% in 1985 to 32.1% in 2011, for 70-74 from 10.2% in 1987 to 18.8% in 2011, and for workers 75+ from 4.15% in 1987 to 7.475% in 2011. I believe these trends will continue to increase as we live substantially longer than any past generations.

Gary Becker, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Pulitzer award winner, wrote an article for BusinessWeek in January 2000 with the heading: "Longer Life Was the Century's Greatest Gift." He noted that 30 years were added to longevity from beginning to end of the 20th century and that it was important to use this gift to maximum advantage. I completely agree.

We no longer consider it to be exceptional when people work into their late 60's, 70's and 80's. With biomedical and other advances contributing to increased longevity, there will come a not-too-distant time when more people are working into their 90's as well.

Here are some items to consider as we look at America's changing demographics:

•The U.S. population is growing older. The size of the 55+ age group is presently at 77 million and is projected to reach almost 100 million by 2020 as Baby Boomers increasingly move into this population segment.

•According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, in 1950, there were 16.5 workers for every retiree; today that ratio is about 3.3 to 1 and by 2030 it's projected to be almost 2 to 1. It is essential that the retirement age be equitably changed to 70 and then linked to further increases in longevity, so that our entitlement programs can become financially sustainable.

•Increased longevity of 30 years in the 20th Century requires a different understanding about aging, retirement and the capabilities of older workers. The experience, expertise and seasoned judgment of workers 65 and older make up a large and growing resource that needs to be used to maintain the country's productivity and economic growth.

•We not only have an aging workforce, but also a shrinking one because of the smaller number of younger people entering the workforce. It is essential that we use the large and growing talent pool of experienced workers to sustain national productivity and economic growth.

It doesn't make economic or societal sense that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 78 million Baby Boomers reaching 65 each year from 2011 to 2029 at the rate of 4.2 million per year will be moved to the sidelines drawing from the economy instead of continuing to work. There are millions of Americans 65 and older who are qualified and ready to be productively engaged and to continue adding value into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

We need to junk the negative attitudes about aging and instead recognize that we have this large and growing talent pool of older people who can significantly contribute to the country's economic growth and social well-being.

I like the saying: "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." Many people 65 and older still have a great deal to offer from the experience and good judgment that can be applied to their work. In addition, their accumulated wisdom can be a valuable addition to the ongoing growth and development of America. Many of our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors who are entering into the fourth stage of adulthood still have a lot to offer. Let's benefit from their good judgment and collectively celebrate this new stage of life.

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