Retirement Transition Reading: Composing a Further Life

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December 2, 2014 by Jean

Recently, my retirees lunch group (see W.O.W.) has begun choosing a book to discuss at our monthly get-togethers, and our November selection was Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Further Life (Knopf, 2010). This book is a sequel of sorts to Bateson’s 1991 bestseller, Composing a Life, in which she explored the ways that women tell the stories of their lives and likened these narratives to improvisational jazz compositions. In this book, Bateson expands her focus to include men, and shifts her attention to the years of later adulthood, a stage of life that she calls “Adulthood II.”

Bateson defines Adulthood II as a new life stage made possible by greater longevity (very similar to what is often referred to in Europe as “the third age,”) and she describes it this way:

I think we will need to think in terms of a first adult stage we can call Adulthood I, a very busy and productive time, which includes both our primary child-rearing years and the building of careers, and a new stage we can call Adulthood II. Adulthood II may begin as early as age forty (for example, for athletes, whose first careers may last only twenty years) and extend past eighty…. (pp. 13-14)

When do you move from Adulthood I to Adulthood II? When you reflect that you have done much of what you hoped to do in life but it is not too late to do something more or different. (p. 19)

Bateson characterizes Adulthood II as a time of “active wisdom,” when the wisdom that comes from long years of life experience is combined with activity made possible by continued health and vitality. As she did in her earlier book, the author, an anthropologist, develops her understanding of Adulthood II through in-depth interviews with a few carefully chosen key informants.

My group had mixed feelings about Composing a Further Life. We all found the concept of Adulthood II useful, but most did not find the extensive use of material from Bateson’s interviews particularly helpful for illuminating our experiences of this life stage. Some grew impatient with the long excerpts from transcripts of Bateson’s conversations with her informants and wished instead for a shorter, article-length treatment of her main ideas. Nevertheless, I think we all found something of interest to take away from the book.

I was particularly intrigued by the way that Bateson drew on the developmental theory of psychologist Eric Erikson, arguing that three of the crises/developmental tasks that Erikson associated with adolescence and adulthood must be revisited in Adulthood II. These three – identity, intimacy, and generativity – all seem important in the transition to retirement:

  • Identity is the developmental task of figuring out who we are, something we need to figure out all over again in retirement. To the extent that our work is an important part of our sense of self, retirement can create a crisis of identity. If work made you feel like “somebody,” for example, retirement can leave you feeling like a nobody. Even if retirement does not bring on an identity crisis, however, it will provide an opportunity to further develop our understanding of who we are.
  • Intimacy involves addressing issues of who we are close to and the form(s) that closeness will take. Most working people have important friendships that are rooted in shared work, and retirement brings changes in (and often loss of) those friendships. It is not uncommon for those approaching retirement to see it as a time for rekindling some relationships and deepening others. But which ones, and how? For those who are married or cohabiting with an intimate partner, retirement challenges established patterns and routines. For those who are not partnered, particularly those who live alone, retirement can include a threat of social isolation.
  • Generativity includes the sense of being productive, creative, or making a contribution. Adulthood II can challenge these because it is a time of life when tasks of procreation and child-rearing have ended and when paid work recedes as a way to make a contribution. For many, the transition to retirement requires finding new ways to generate value and meaning in life.

For Bateson, the revisiting of these issues in Adulthood II is different from our first grappling with them, as we build on the strengths of our earlier development. Our earlier experiences with these developmental tasks become part of the wisdom we bring to this new life stage.

In this book, as in her earlier Composing a Life, Bateson uses the metaphor of themes and variations. In Adulthood II, the composition created from those themes and variations becomes more complex, layered, and richer. This is an upbeat, hopeful book, as Bateson leaves us feeling lucky to have arrived at this special time of life and issues a call to arms to make the most of the opportunity that is Adulthood II.

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6 thoughts on “Retirement Transition Reading: Composing a Further Life

  1. Diana Studer says:

    In South Africa we say Third Age, as in U3A, University of the Third Age.
    Today at last I got to the library, came home with a pile of fresh novels, and will explore the non-fiction when I catch up with myself a bit.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, You were the person I first heard the term “third age” from. I am currently reading British historian Peter Laslett’s examination of the concept in his book A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age. I hope your new library is a good one.

  2. Jean R. says:

    How true it is that as we age we have to revisit identity, intimacy and “generativity.” The way we identify ourselves does change as our work years end and our relationships on the home front have to be re-structured. I’ve seen many people at loose ends when they realize their work friends don’t necessarily carry over into retirement and they haven’t yet found a passion project to fill in their time. Life can be so complex!

  3. I have been experiencing all three of Erikson’s developmental tasks and it makes perfect sense…it seems a bit easier this time around and I am enjoying the journey…as always a fascinating read Jean!!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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