By Prudy Gourguechon
The brilliant psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis”over 60 years ago to describe the profound psychological challenge faced by adolescents and emerging adults who must figure out who they are, what they’re going to do with their lives and who they’re going to do it with.
Now, many of the 10,000 baby boomers who turn 65 every day are facing a second identity crisis, something that did not exist for previous generations. After a lifetime of work, a person “retired” and pursued volunteer, leisure or family activities with a relative withdrawal from the world of productive, engaged work. “I taught school—now I’m taking care of my grandchildren once a week and spending more time at our lake house.” “I practiced law; now I practice my golf swing.” “I closed my practice. I’m president of the synagogue now.” “I stepped down as CEO and now I’m on a couple of boards.” There’s no real identity crisis in those traditional pathways. Instead, there’s a continuity of self.
Today, most people find themselves in a situation in their mid 60’s where they are either forced to leave their work role or know they should (it’s time for succession, as Lloyd Blankfein realized last year). Or they have an internal drive to make a major pivot—they’re burnt out, or treading water, or used up. Or they just don’t find it interesting to keep doing more of what they’ve always done.
But the life expectancy for a 65-year-old today is pushing up towards 20 years. And it’s likely that during those two decades they will be healthy most of the time, in contrast to their counterparts in previous generations. Consequently, today’s 65-year-old is very likely to experience much the same feelings and disturbance of the typical identity crisis previously ascribed only to adolescents.
Erikson put it this way: identity “connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others.” One of Erikson’s most important contributions was to describe this as a psychosocial phenomenon—an interaction between someone’s sense of who he or she is as a person and society’s recognition of that person as an individual. The key point here is that as your place in society shifts so does your internal sense of identity.
These are the questions that come into play, either consciously or unconsciously: Who am I anyway, after all this? What kind of work do I want to do now? Who do I want to spend my time with and where? What is the point of my life now? What kind of stimulation do I need, and what kind do I want to avoid? What have I had enough of and what do I still yearn for?
The process of confronting these questions –and finding the answers–has all the disruptive hallmarks of an identity crisis.
Why is this experience called a “crisis” rather than something like “identity formation” or, for older folks, “identity recalibration?” Because it’s a disruptive process—not a single event, but an ongoing process of self-assessment, trial and error and re-assessment. Try something and see if it feels right. Notice this makes you feel empty. Notice that makes you feel alive. It’s a time of life that is exciting and full of potential but not necessarily fun. And not easy to put into words.
Here’s how Erikson described the adolescent’s identity crisis:
“The adolescent, during the final stage of his identity formation, is apt to suffer more deeply than he ever did before (or ever will again) from a diffusion of roles; and it is also true that such diffusion renders many an adolescent defenseless against the sudden impact of previously latent malignant disturbances.”
The person in an identity crisis suffers. Much of the suffering stems from a “diffusion of roles.” “I knew what it was to be a doctor (lawyer, teacher, trader, etc.) but if I don’t do that anymore what am I, what shapes my day, what do I want, what should I do.”
In other writing, I’ve coined the term “starting older” to describe a new stage of life today’s 65-year-old is entering. The person entering this phase of life doesn’t feel old, but they don’t feel young either. External and internal pressures drive them to change or relinquish the structures that have organized their lives—the place they went to work in the morning, the train home, even the natural environment.
The need to search out new roles and structures –role diffusion—is accompanied by a subjective, psychological feeling of diffusion. Despite its inherent positive potential this feeling state is disorienting and risky. Diffusion feels smoky, undefined, vague and uncomfortable. There’s an amorphous fuzzing out of previously held certainties. “Unmoored” captures the state pretty well. A bit of what psychiatrists call “depersonalization” may be there—you’re not quite inside yourself.
Be ready for it, if you are in your early 60’s. It’s not easy going. But you have a chance to find time for your true self. To get involved in activities that engage parts of yourself you abandoned years ago. To keep working, but to do that work in a direction and setting that is new, or altered, and with a different purpose.
You may discover things about yourself you never knew. (I’d like to ask George W. Bush if he knew what a fine visual observer and painter he was before he took up painting post-presidency.)
You may miss and mourn for lost skills and desires. It is a liberating, confusing, frightening, terrible and glorious time of life. Just like adolescence.
To bring things down to earth with some practical advice: people nearing or passing the 60-year-old milestone should start to think about a plan for the starting older phase of life. Don’t expect things just to fall into place. Stay flexible and adaptable. Those who anticipate the diffusion and confusion and set out with a plan A and plan B and maybe plan C are more likely to have shorter painful and wasted periods of time.
Start by asking yourself questions. If you’re not going to be doing more of the same, what do you really want to do? Is there any dream or passion you had as a young adult but abandoned along the way? Could you pick it up again? And where do you want to be? Do you need more forest around you? Or more urban life? More stability or more variety? More people or more solitude? This is a time when introspection pays off. There are a lot of paths you can go down. You can’t know the right one in advance. But if you learn to pay attention to how you respond to various options and choices, you’ll be able to refine an understanding of what you need and want and build a sound and enlivening structure for the rest of your life.
Fortunately, people in this second identity crisis have great advantages over adolescents—a lifetime of experience, wise friends, knowledge of how the world operates, financial and human resources to call on. Use them fully and wisely and this may be the best time of life yet.
The Mazatlan Post