An Interview with Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot

The Golden Age

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 12/1/2008

Renowned sociologist and MacArthur winner, Lawrence-Lightfoot documents the rich possibilities for intellectual growth and personal transformation between the ages of 50 and 75 in The Third Chapter.

What prompted you to write this book?

At meetings or dinner parties, there’d be a moment when someone would whisper to me, “You’ll never guess what I’m up to. I’m taking a playwriting class” or “I’m trying out for a half marathon.” It was such a departure from the typical conversations about children, aches and pains or needing Botox. I think they whisper because our society has an incredibly ambivalent regard for aging. We’re supposed to become passive rather than create a new life narrative. I remember when my mother was about 72, she called her middle-aged children to the house and said, “I don’t think you all know who I am. I’ve spent most of my adult life raising you and you need to know who I am now.”

You profile many corporate and academic retirees devoting themselves to artistic or humanitarian work. What kind of unlearning needs to occur as they make this transition?

You have to unlearn dependence on external status measures—and this is very hard work. You have to learn how to learn from the next generation. The first steps of new learning are tentative and treacherous and tender—you have to learn how to learn from failure.

You write that getting older forces people into new relationships with their racial and sexual identities. Have you experienced this?

I get blacker each year. It’s this notion of having to journey home in order to journey forward. I write about a 75-year-old Chinese woman who realizes that the next step requires connecting with her roots.

It seems like all your subjects are finally living their most authentic lives. Is this a function of arriving in the “third chapter,” or does the day-to-day impede this process?

It’s a bit of both. Erik Erikson was prescient in saying that when you get to this stage, you have a choice—generativity versus stagnation. Our emotional and cognitive development allows us to be ready to be generous, to teach and engage in activism. But the rituals, values and roles of institutions prohibit expressivity and exploration. We’re trained very early—to let those things go as we climb the ladders of success.

So much of your advice—to keep learning new things, stay malleable and humble—is applicable to people of all ages, no?

That’s what I was hoping for, that people before the third stage can get ready and begin to practice. How old are you?

27.

Oh my goodness. You have so much to look forward to.

Read the PW review of The Third Chapter here

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