Life expectancies are growing rapidly; the average person lived only thirty-seven years at the beginning of the eighteenth century; a child born today will be expected to live more than twice as long. Yet, despite the radical and growing increase in life expectancy, typical life cycles have not changed. We still expect that youth will be devoted to formal education. A male adult will be expected to work from the time he finishes school until he retires, typically around age sixty-five. A woman may follow the same path, or she may leave the work force to raise a family. In a world in which almost everything has changed, little has changed about the typical life cycle.
Despite increasing life expectancies, society still focuses to a very large extent on “youth”; the models for this group are very young athletes and entertainers. But as life expectancies continue to expand, the very idea of “youth” may change. In today’s world, someone who is forty years old has probably not even hit the midpoint of his or her life. And as more and more people live to age 100 and beyond, the whole concept of “middle age,” “retirement age,” and “old age” needs to be re-evaluated.
A number of factors should have made modern life more flexible and interesting:
• Increased life expectancy.
• A much longer window of opportunity during which men and women can become parents. In modern society, there is nothing uncommon about a man or woman becoming a parent for the first time in their early forties.
• Increased cultural acceptance of alternative lifestyles, including remaining single and childless.
• Increasing overall affluence. These changes could impact the modern life cycle in a number of positive ways. If a person “retires” at age sixty and is in good health, it is quite likely they will live another twenty to thirty years. Rather than retiring to a life of leisure, they might want to begin a second or third career at this point — one that is based on the personal interests developed during a long life, rather than economic need.
Perhaps the “normal” path for an eighteen year old should be to spend a few years doing simple work, travelling, and generally exploring their options. They’ll still have plenty of time left in the future for education and career, and the natural rhythm of life may call for adventure prior to a more settled routine. Perhaps the “normal” time to undertake advanced graduate school education should be at age forty; after one has had a first career, but with plenty of time remaining for a second career. Whether you should try to learn modern dance at age forty or fifty really has more to do with the state of your body than with social mores about the aging process.
Ignore convention; follow the path that makes sense to you.