We are witnessing a quiet yet unprecedented development in human history, and it has been given the name “the third chapter”.
Essentially, it is this: the human race is now living longer than it ever has, as much as a third longer, and these additional years are healthy, vital ones at that. The sociologist Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book “The Third Chapter”, says this new period of life between 50 and 75 years of age is a recent major development in the human species. It is also a period of unexpected risk-taking and creativity.
She poses that “chapter one” is youth, the first 25 years or so of life in which we develop into self-supporting adults. The next 25 years or so is “chapter two”, where we become sustaining members of the greater community.
Historically, at the end of chapter two, people in their early 50’s were considered near the end of what was called “middle age”. They were looking down the road to retirement, quietly shutting down and shuffling off. Today, statistically, those days are long gone – sixty is no longer elderly.
Lawrence-Lightfoot demonstrates how nutrition, good healthcare, and social expectations now extend life well into the late 70’s, and this period of humanity is hardly frail. Not only do they have the energy to embark on new and creative vocations, but they now have the confidence to take on risks they never would have considered as a 20-something or even a 40-something.
Third Chapter people become artists, explorers, missionaries, writers, brick-layers, farmers, politicians, activists. They earn new academic degrees, open up businesses, sell the family home and downsize in order to travel, get married and create new families. It is a burst of energy and creativity which has little patience with the obstacles of tradition or social convention.
The reality of the third chapter came home to me a couple of years ago when my bishop made his annual visit to my parish for confirmations and receptions. A “reception” is when an adult is formally received into the church as a member with prayers and laying on of hands by a bishop. Twelve young teens were confirmed that day, but to my surprise, twelve older adults were received into the church as well.
Changing churches is not an easy thing for a mature person to do; you separate yourself from your former life and friends, even upset some family members. But that is in keeping with the character of third chapter people – they take their life into their own hands to form it as they see fit, and are willing to take the risks in order to do so.
I think about a woman who went back to school and graduated at age 50 to begin a new career. She was asked if she thought it might be a difficult journey, starting out at her age, and she replied, “Well, I realized I was going to be 50 anyway, so why not be 50 and do what I want?”
I hope more of us consider the third chapter stage in our life. It requires some thinking and planning. The joke “If I knew I was going to be this old, I’d of taken much better care of myself” is not so much a joke anymore. Also, I hope more of us consider that a significant segment of society is going to be third chapter people, and we are not going to go softly into that good night any time soon. We need to rethink a community in which there are more than two chapters of people. What does community life look like with three chapters, and not just two? Remember, in my parish, there were as many new third chapter adults joining the church as there were first chapter teens being confirmed in the church. There is much talk about first chapter millennials and second chapter gen-Xer’s. Are we thinking about a three-chapter-community as church leaders?
Personally, I think we live in some exciting times. This is going to be fun!