Barbara Waxman On Aging

Marin Magazine, Barbara Waxman
Photo by Jack Wolford

EVER SINCE SHE was a child, accompanying her physician father as he volunteered at retirement homes, Barbara Waxman has been fascinated with aging. She earned a master’s degree in gerontology — the study of adult development and aging — shortly after college. When she later became a life coach, she specialized in clients who were at what she calls “midlife and better.”

But as she worked with numerous clients over the years, Waxman realized how out of sync our perceptions of midlife are with reality, especially now that Americans live longer than ever before. What was once considered a time of crisis or stagnation, Waxman believes, needs to be celebrated as a period of creativity, vitality and growth. She’s even given this life stage a new name: middlescence. Waxman’s e-book The Middlescence Manifesto: Igniting the Passion of Midlife was recently published and she’s working on a print book on the same subject.

In calling her book a “manifesto,” the Kentfield resident is making a statement. Through books, articles and work with clients, Waxman hopes to ignite a national conversation and revolutionize the way we think about midlife.

Your mission is to redefine midlife and actually name it as a new life stage. Can you talk about that?

As a gerontologist and life coach for more than 30 years, I’ve witnessed a lot of suffering that people experience around aging. We’ve added more than 30 years to our lives in the last century. In 1900, we lived to 47. Now, we live to 80 or older. But those aren’t 30 decrepit years at the end. We’ve added at least a couple of new, vibrant decades to the middle. And yet people still think of midlife as a no-man’s-land. I was talking to my son, Matt, the other day, and he’s an innovative, start-up kind of guy, and he said, “Mom, what you need to do is rebrand midlife.” So I’m rebranding it as “middlescence.” I know that by naming it we’ll help people see all of the potential that actually exists.

Can you define middlescence?

Sure. Middlescence is a transitional period, usually between the ages of 45 and 65, when people want to find or create greater meaning in their life. It’s often accompanied by physical, social and economic changes, and it’s a turning point, from which adults continue to develop and grow.

What does that mean in practical terms?

For middlescents, it means that there’s an inner sense of “I’m not young but I’m not old.” People are looking around and asking, “Where am I in the scheme of things?” The rules used to be that you continued doing what you were already doing — working in a long-term job or field, raising a family — it was as though your story had already been written and all your choices made. But the rules have changed, even if people don’t know it yet. There’s inspiration all around us. There are people in their 50s starting companies; about half of all new businesses in the U.S. were started by people 45 or older. My vision of middlescence is that it’s actually the pinnacle of life. We still have vitality and energy, and we have the benefit of wisdom gleaned from our own life stories.

How does that differ from how we experienced middle age in the past?

Whether we were aware of it or not, we grew up thinking that life had three chapters. The first was learning and going to school. The second was working and meeting the perfect person and having the perfect family. The third chapter was leisure and retirement. The truth is that we cycle in and out of periods of learning, we cycle in and out of relationships and the roles we play. Life takes a lot of twists and turns and there’s a lot of drama and there are a lot of different characters; we live our lives in chapters and at midlife so many are waiting to be written. Part of being a middlescent is knowing that we’re going to keep growing and things are going to change — and often, that’s an uncomfortable place to be.

That sounds a lot like adolescence.

Funny you should say that. Did you know that adolescence was first named in 1904? The psychologist Stanley Hall recognized various social factors in play after the industrial revolution, and that kids were struggling with identity shifts and changes during this time of life. So he named adolescence. Since then, we’ve known how to work with it. It would be really helpful to name life’s newest stage for the 82 million people who are middlescents right now.

How is middlescence like adolescence?

There are a lot of similarities. It’s a time of transition. Our bodies are also morphing, but probably in ways we don’t appreciate. Our hormones are changing — and by the way, that’s true for men as well as for women. And a lot of relationship shifts are happening. We’re transitioning from early adulthood to the core and beauty of what adulthood is, and what follows is more the age of mastery.

How is it different from a midlife crisis?

If you talk to someone who is going through what we call a “midlife crisis,” and you ask him or her what’s really going on, you find out it’s not a crisis. It’s turmoil and change. Some people don’t handle it well, don’t go about it the right way, so everything blows up in their wake and we call it a crisis. It may be a crisis for other people more than for them. But research shows that people don’t report they’re really having a crisis.

What about the free-floating anxiety that many people feel at middle age?

I think a lot of this is because we need to normalize aging. In my work as a coach, people tell me, “Barb, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what I want to do or who I want to be when I grow up. And by the way, I’m 56. I’m a grown-up.” I hear this across the board for middlescents, like we all have this secret. But it’s not a secret. The anxiety that people feel is often because they don’t understand that there’s so much potential at 45, 56 or 60. We’ve got another 25 or 30 years to really be vital. The question is, how do I take this anxiety, which is a reflection of my inner searching, and create something from it that is what I consider a life well lived?

Are you talking about transforming your life into one of greater meaning?

I think at this stage of life we gravitate toward not accepting anything less than a true connection to our work and the people we spend time with. We’re less willing to put up with things. People report that they feel like things need to change. We’re more willing to say, “You know what? In the past, I was living small. But I can be bigger. I can be happier. My life can be richer.” Part of that, for a lot of people, is about making the world a better place. And that’s what gets me excited about this work, helping middlescents live a life of connection, meaning and purpose. And I want to make it clear that this is something that anyone can achieve, regardless of income status. Every kid goes through adolescence, whether they have money or not.

What about ageism? That’s a big stumbling block.

We’re suffering a cultural lag. People still think of 60 as old. The whole basis of 65 being a senior citizen was because Social Security was enacted in 1935, when our life expectancy was 57. We need to reframe what aging looks like in the country now. Simply put, ageism is bad for business in every respect.

How does all this apply to your own life?

I’ve been working and building to this point for years as a coach and gerontologist. But now that I’ve launched my three children and they’re squarely out of the house, I have the capacity to fully immerse myself in launching this really innovative and important contribution. I wouldn’t have had the bandwidth before. If I lived according to the old rules, I would already be past my prime. But now, at 54, I feel like I’m just getting going.

Marin Magazine readers can download a free version of Waxman’s e-book The MiddlescenceManifesto: Igniting the Passion of Midlife.