My good friend David decided to celebrate a milestone birthday artfully: he invited one person from each adult age decade – from 20 to 90 – to a panel discussion about experiences across the lifetime. What happened was a fabulous study in adult development in modern-day terms. (Erik Erickson and Robert Kegan would have loved to be on this panel) After fun introductions, here’s what I learned – or perhaps relearned:
From Spencer, our 20-something in California:
- Life right now is full of distractions, uncertainties, and noise. Career opportunities, fears of debt, and uncertainty about the longevity in any career create enthusiasm and stress.
- Identity is not a fixed state – the old days of identifying oneself by a chosen long-term career are over. Young people now think in terms of multiple careers. On the upside: There are no boundaries around what career one could aspire to. Identity has never had so many options!
- Fun fact for us old folks: Not every 20-something knows all the hipster terms, apparently: when asked what some “on-trend” terms, Spencer had to look them up! 😊
From Kevin, our 30-something in California (he’s from New York originally):
- Moving from singlehood to parenthood has allowed for a fuller expression of identity. After living in New York in his 20s, he moved to San Diego to build a career, family, and community there, which has created a fuller experience of his identity. Bringing long-time friendships into this fold of new identity has offered profound rewards.
- Simultaneously, carving out identity and meaning that is separate and distinct from family is also essential. As the pandemic creates a lot of together time, finding time to be with self (self-care, deep thinking) and building new friendships is critical to a full definition of oneself.
From Moria, our 40-something in New York/Manhattan/from New Jersey:
- What seemed important in your 20s can appear so different just a decade later. For example, after getting married, identity as a single person fades away. Moria mentioned that since she got married recently, a goal she has is learning to be “a good wife,” mirroring Kevin’s desire to “be a good dad.” However, there is a new sense of comfort in who one is at this age and stage.
- While the identity settles into something else, there are still challenges as it takes shape from a single person to a married couple. Old relationships shift, sometimes before new ones develop. Finding relationships that support your new identity is critical for understanding self.
From me, our 50-something in Washington, DC:
- Identity is something that keeps redefining. After living overseas on two different continents, I’ve seen how blue zone countries with long lifespans live: with a strong focus on family, health, learning, and service. Money is a construct, something to be used but not worshipped.
- Identify shifts from “what I do” to “who I am” becomes a bit easier. Priorities begin to crystallize differently. Service and family start to take center stage, and career begins to focus on creating a legacy. It becomes easier to say no to things that are not important.
- Like Kevin, self-identity is quite essential. For example, my spouse and I decided my career needed me to be back in the US, meaning we would be geographically separated for a year. But our love and marriage identity are better served by me being able to help my career, and I’m happy because I can be my full self here. I would not have made that decision two decades ago.
From Audrey, our 60-something:
- Living overseas in Europe, her skin color was a tertiary issue when meeting others. What mattered was her identity as an American. What a sharp contrast from the US! She has far more difficulty dealing with people here regarding skin color than she experienced overseas. (It reminds me of the adroit statement, “There are no black people in Africa.”)
- Graciousness and service can be transformational. Emigrating to the US as a child, the kindness extended to Audrey and her mother was profound. For example, her high school guidance counselor helped her learn how to access resources and taught her that scholarships might be available for undergrad and grad school. That generosity helped Audrey clear obstacles to obtain affordable higher education, catapulting her into a long and successful career – and now, an enjoyable retirement.
From Joyce, our 70-something:
- Life continually provides opportunities to make good friends. You are never too old to develop great relationships!
- Joyce is a living, breathing example of someone who builds community through every interaction. Her generosity of spirit knows no bounds. For instance, Joyce runs an Airbnb, and her previous renters often send her letters and gifts. She also has many return guests – her magnanimous personality, generosity, and service keep people coming back.
Last and certainly not least, “Grandma Ball” at 97.
- This woman! She looks and acts like she isn’t more than 75. She attributes her good health to the love of her family and keeping them close. Nothing gives her more joy than the presence of her children, grandchildren, and -great-grandchildren. This love is a critical part of her longevity.
- Work: Beginning in the 1940s, she was a Flight Hostess, flying for Transcontinental Air (yes, it existed). She gained a lifetime of fascinating experiences during her time there. Interestingly, the minute she got married, the company fired her – you had to choose in those days between work and family. Despite that, she describes feeling incredibly fortunate and grateful for the experience she had in that role.
- She also emphasized the importance of gratitude and humility. Even during a pandemic, social unrest, and massive climate change, this unflappable woman talked about the countless blessings she has had, including service to others. For example, Grandma Ball read to veterans at a care facility for decades. She said the act of providing such a needed service made her feel incredibly valued. She could see the great gift she was giving to the servicemen. Even today, while she lives in a care facility, she has read to her fellow residents there as well. She is quick to say that her generosity is just as much a gift for her as for them.
This panel confirmed for me what matters across the lifespan: a sense of identity and belonging that comes from family, friendships, meaningful work, and community; and humility, gratitude, and hope that come from giving to others. During dark days when it can be easy to forget, may we all take a page from these wise folks and greet each day with gratitude for our families, meaningful work, and opportunities to serve. It will always be what elevates us out of the darkness.