The Evolution of Adulthood: A New Stage

By Dr. Elliott Jaques and William K. Zinke
March 2000 

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An extraordinary change has taken place in industrialized countries during the past 50 years, the consequences of which have not yet been fully recognized. People are living longer and in better health, and the meaning of adult life itself has changed: a whole new stage of mature adulthood has come onto the scene, and old age has been pushed back by many years.

We propose that the onset of old age occurs much later in life and that a new stage of adulthood has emerged from 62 to 85 years of age. It is important that this phenomenon be recognized by society generally in terms of how we think about aging, retirement, and the continued involvement of older Americans in productive activities. It is even more important, however, that it be recognized by those who are in or approaching this new stage of adulthood, because it can change their lives to do so. Instead of considering themselves to be old and over the hill, they may realize that a whole new stage of active life is open to them, with untold opportunities for continued intellectual growth and accomplishment.

The facts are easy to state. Men and women are living an average of almost 18 years longer than they did in 1900, and in much better health. While many are retiring from regular full-time employment before reaching age 65, a large number of retired workers are ready, willing, and in all respects capable of working into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They are not gerontological exceptions but fully competent adults
who desire the opportunity to continue as productive contributors.

Demographic change has had a major impact on the entire world, and our thinking in America will have to catch up with that change. The retirement age of 65 was established by the Social Security Act of 1935, when average life expectancy was 61.7 years and relatively few made it past 65.1 Today, there are almost 59 million Americans 55 and older, increasing to 75 million by 2010 and 95 million by 2020. There are 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who will start to join those ranks in 2001, and it has been reported that 74 to 80 percent of them plan to work in retirement.

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