Literary Geritol

Gail Sheehy’s New Passages a tonic for the middle-aged

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER July 31 1995

Literary Geritol

Gail Sheehy’s New Passages a tonic for the middle-aged

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER July 31 1995

Literary Geritol

Is there life after 50? Gail Sheehy didn’t think so when she wrote Passages, her 1976 best-seller about the stages of adult life. Then 39, the American journalist ended her hugely influential book with the forties—“the deadline decade”—suggesting that middle age marked the beginning of a long, slow decline. “Like so many others of my generation, I couldn’t imagine life beyond 50,” Sheehy, now 57, admits in her latest book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (Random House, $29.95). “And I certainly couldn’t bring myself to consider it as a time of potential.” But that was nearly 20 years ago. “Since I wrote Passages, the whole shape of society has changed,” she writes. “People are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die.” In her new sequel to Passages—which sold nearly 10 million copies and was translated into more than 20 languages—Sheehy brings that new perspective to a look at life after 50. “Surprise!” she writes. ‘The second half of adult life is not the stagnant, depressing downward slide we have always assumed it to be.”

In the space of a generation, Sheehy contends, the old stereotype of middle age has become obsolete. “The middle years do not mean descent,” she writes in New Passages. “On the contrary, this is the stage of greatest well-being in the lives of most healthy people today.” Sheehy, a contributing political editor for Vanity Fair, arrived at this reassuring, if extremely optimistic, conclusion after interviewing more than 500 “pacesetters”—men and women aged 20 to 70, including Joni

Mitchell and Gloria Steinern, who continued to enjoy personal and professional growth— and even rousing sex—in their later years. Offering more pop psychology than real proof, New Passages is an engaging mix of intimate, often amusing anecdotes on coping with the crises of age, with extensive census data and epidemiological surveys.

The cornerstone of Sheehy’s theory is the simple fact that people are living longer. She cites studies that show that women can expect at least 32—and probably 40—years of productive living after they reach their 50th birthday, and that the average healthy man who reaches the age of 65 can expect to live until 81.

“That amounts to a second adult lifetime,” writes Sheehy. “We now have a quantity and quality of adult life never seen before in civilization—and people don’t quite know what to do with it.”

Sheehy points the way—literally—with a revised “map of adult life.” In a full-color illustration in New Passages, the progress through adulthood is depicted like the. settling of the American Wild West, with the Rockies appropriately positioned as a mid-route crisis. Her new map shows three stages: provisional adulthood (18 to 30), first adulthood (30 to 45) and second adulthood (45 to 85 and older). Since the mid-1970s, Sheehy explains, greater opportunities for women and new eo-

Gail Sheehy’s New Passages a tonic for the middle-aged

nomic pressures have shifted the stages of adulthood by an entire decade. Adolescence now stretches into the “tryout twenties.” Sheehy maintains that, because of delayed marriage and childbirth, the transition to real adulthood now takes place at 30. And 50 marks Sheehy’s “brand-new passage” into middle age, renamed “The Age of Mastery.” To reap the rewards of the “flaming fifties” and “harmonizing sixties,” however, Sheehy says that middle-agers must first pass through “middlescence”—the mid-life crisis. ‘To break into this most productive stage,” she writes, “one must accept losses of cherished strengths of young adulthood.” And that is easier for women than for men. Menopause, more difficult for females in the short term, acts as a signal to women to begin the adjustment to the “youth of their old age,” she told Maclean’s in an interview. But in men, the process is much more gradual. “Male menopause is not strictly a menopause,” says Sheehy, although hormonal and physiological changes do cause men to experience similar symptoms—lack of vitality, irritability and depression. “Men go on pretending that they are just as strong, just as athletic and that their sexual potency is the same as when they were 20. All of which eventually is going to be frustrating for them.” Many men, she says, are jolted out of young adulthood by accident or illness, the death of a loved one and, more frequently now, loss of a job. “Some circle in middlescence for a long time trying to hold it off,” says Sheehy.

New Passages is flooded with optimism about the vigorous and productive years after 50—perhaps reflecting Sheehy’s own existence. Married to prominent magazine journalist and publisher Clay Felker for 10 years, the mother of two children who are writers, the author radiates vigor, confidence and material success. She notes that “reasonably good health” and a decent income are prerequisites for middle-age fulfilment. “The income level needs to be, in American dollars, somewhere above $30,000 a year. Beneath that, it’s more likely that you will spend your time just getting by.”

While Sheehy claims to be open to the possibilities of middle age, in her book she continually applies restrictive labels to the stages of adulthood— the 30s are “turbulent,” the 40s are “flourishing” and, later on, the 70s are “sage” while the 80s are—surprise—“uninhibited.” Still, Sheehy’s timing is impeccable. Baby boomers, who are reaching middle age and clinging to their youth, appear to be grasping at her hopeful message—New Passages is topping best-seller lists throughout North America. “When the boomers hit their 50s,” predicts Sheehy, “it will become the sexy thing to be—there will be an adult revolution.”

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER