The third chapter can be the best in the book

5 min read

Lawrence-Lightfoot talks about the years after 50

There may be something to the adage about growing older and wiser. A lot, in fact, according to the new book by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). The work explores the trend of learning and development for adults who are in their “third chapter” of life, or, as Lawrence-Lightfoot puts it, “the generative space that follows adulthood and middle age.”

Much recent attention has focused on the aging baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, who are living longer, working well beyond traditional retirement years, and enjoying healthier, more active, and more fulfilling lives.

In her new book, Lawrence-Lightfoot examines a group of people who fall squarely into that category: 40 largely professional and well-educated men and women from across the country who are uncovering their next stage of growth and discovery as they learn a new craft or skill, face new choices and challenges, and use their past to both move forward and give back in dynamic ways.

Inspired by the tales of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances between the ages of 50 and 75 who would tell her excitedly about learning something new, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education embarked on a two-year journey around the United States on a project of “inquiry, witness, and storytelling.”

The author of eight previous books, Lawrence-Lightfoot “is a sociologist who examines the culture of schools, the patterns and structures of classroom life, socialization within families and communities, and the relationships between culture and learning styles.” She has, notes her faculty profile, “pioneered portraiture, an approach to social science methodology that bridges the realms of aesthetics and empiricism.”

“My book focuses on the creative and purposeful learning that goes on between 50 and 75, the chapter that follows young adulthood and middle age. It asks what are our sources of inspiration, what are our greatest fears and inhibitions, and what are our major barriers to learning — and what allows us to pursue new adventures,” Lawrence-Lightfoot told a crowd at Longfellow Hall on March 5 in a discussion about her new work.

Learning for those in the “third chapter,” she said, involves a host of paradoxes: a simultaneous sense of the familiar and strange, the exciting and terrifying — as well as the seemingly contradictory notions of constancy and change, urgency and patience.

Lawrence-Lightfoot’s own spin on the notion of giving back comprises the book’s central paradox, which she calls “looking back and giving forward.”

People in their third chapter, she noted, frequently incorporate an impulse to learn with the aim of transferring knowledge, experience, wisdom, and a lasting legacy to future generations, often with a nod to the past.

“[Some of us] look to our origins to the lessons we learned at home about service, charity, justice, about collective responsibility and citizenship, and feel — often for the first time — compelled to find a way to enact those values and those principles.”

Engaging in mentoring and teaching is an important dimension to the notion of giving forward, remarked the author, as is learning from the next generation how best to make lasting contributions.

She offered her own experience as a volunteer canvassing in New Hampshire for then-candidate Barack Obama.

Describing her partner for the task as an energetic, speedy 24-year-old graduate student with a somewhat abrasive questioning style, she said, “He had all the facts; he had all the figures; he had all the energy. So, I had a bunch to learn from him. But I was trying to get him to learn how to listen. I was trying to get him to be empathic with these views that we could hardly bear to hear, and there was this wonderful tug-of-war, this tension as we discovered what the other knew and what was useful for each of us to learn.”

While her 40 subjects represented a largely professional demographic, the professor was quick to note that her work applies to men and women from every background. She recounted the story of a welder who called in to a radio show where she was discussing her book. Out of work, he had taken to selling items at a local flea market and was inspired to try his hand at art when he saw some of the artwork for sale there. His work of large metal dinosaur sculptures developed a following and eventually landed in galleries.

“He tells this story of this transformation,” said Lawrence-Lightfoot, who added the tale of her own plumber who confided to her that he was taking cooking classes with the goal of preparing an entire Thanksgiving feast for his family.

“It’s my sense … that this is not a bunch of stories or experiences that are owned by people who have money, or education. … There is an impulse at this time in our lives to find some new way to discover something new about ourselves, to reinvest in something.”