When it comes to the social impact of aging and the demographics of the baby boom, there is no name more authoritative than Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D.

A psychologist, gerontologist and entrepreneur, Ken is the bestselling author of
Age Wave, the new children’s book about personal transformation, Gideon’s Dream (co-written with Maddy Dychtwald, Dave Zaboski and Grace Zaboski) and more than a dozen other titles.

Ken’s awards and distinctions would fill a page. He has served as a fellow of the World Economic Forum and is recipient of the distinguished American Society on Aging Award for outstanding national leadership in the field of aging.
American Demographics magazine honored him as the single most influential marketer to baby boomers over the past quarter century. His article in The Harvard Business Review, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” was awarded the prestigious McKinsey Award (tying for first place with the legendary Peter Drucker). His acclaimed documentary film “The Boomer Century” aired more than 2,000 times on PBS channels throughout 2007.

Ken’s visionary work has been the catalyst for innovation in an extraordinarily broad range of fields—from vitamins and cookies to automotive design and retail merchandising to mutual funds and health insurance. — J.D.M

How did you first become involved with the idea of the “age wave”?

I first became interested in the field more or less by accident. I was twenty-four, living and teaching at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and working on my first book, Bodymind. One day Jean Houston, the author, asked me if I would be interested in partnering with a friend of hers, Dr. Gay Luce, who was working on creating an innovative human potential training program.

This was in 1973, years before the wellness movement, before the holistic health movement, before Pilates or peak performance, before yoga had really caught on.

We were hardly even jogging yet!

Jogging was just emerging; if you went out and ran a mile, people thought you were pretty wild.

I decided to move to Berkeley to join Dr. Luce in crafting this program. It was going to be a year-long curriculum, very different from the weekend workshops and two-hour lectures that were becoming popular, integrating everything from biofeedback and nutrition to Tai Chi and dream therapy.

However, at the last minute, Gay’s mom fell ill, and it struck Gay that in our youth-focused culture, nobody was using any of these therapeutic techniques with the elderly. She thought perhaps this was something she ought to do, and she asked if I’d be open to joining her.

Not exactly what you were expecting.

Honestly, as a young man in my early twenties, the idea of working with the elderly didn’t hold much charm for me. I liked being with people my own age and doing programs for people in their thirties and forties.

I told Gay I would get the project started and then move on.

And here we are, thirty-five years later!

I got hooked. Once I was in the project, I became absolutely fascinated with older people. I realized that if you could see past the way they dressed, the wrinkles and gray hair, these were towering figures, seasoned men and women who had a vast perspective on life. They had a kind of wisdom that intrigued me.

The Sage Project, as we called it, became extremely successful. Before I knew it, I was being invited all over the world to speak about a new image of aging.

Soon I began growing interested not only in the elderly, but also in the journey of aging itself. I was curious about how we get to be the people we become, about the choices we make along the way that make us either healthy, vibrant and engaged, or unhealthy, impoverished and disconnected.

I would meet people in their seventies who were poor but hadn’t always been so, and they could describe the bad moves that had left them impoverished. I would meet older people who were terribly lonely, and it was clear that along the way, they had not made new friends or tried new activities that would have brought them into a new world of relationships.

It became increasingly obvious to me that to a great extent, we ourselves make the decisions, consciously or not, that lead us to who we’ll become in our later years.

And when we’re younger, we never really expect to be old.

Unfortunately, that’s often how it is.

When we go on vacation, we usually do a lot of prep work. We plan out where we’re going to be, what kind of clothes we’ll need, what kind of currency we should bring along. Yet for some reason, we don’t do this same kind of thinking about the second half of our lives. We just assume that if we keep barreling away in the direction we’re going, everything will wind up okay.

And sometimes it does—but often it doesn’t.

In 1982, I served as part of a two-year project launched by the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment that focused on how America would be transformed by the aging of our population in the early twenty-first century. The fifteen of us on the panel would study all sorts of provocative essays and white papers, and then assemble in Washington every few months to debate and try to make sense of it all.

This was when I was struck by the demographic piece of the puzzle, and I first saw the coming “age wave.”

The population bubble created by the baby boom.

That’s right. I realized that because of increasing longevity and declining fertility, but most importantly because of the aging of the baby boom, America would be undergoing a radical transformation by the beginning of the 21st century, as these 78 million people began moving into their fifties and sixties.

It occurred to me that we had shaped our world in every way around the form and fit of who we had always been—which was young. In the decades to come, I saw that we were going to have a world in which the typefaces would be too small, where doorknobs would be replaced by door levers, where the length of time it takes for the traffic lights to change would be too quick and the auditory range on our telephones and television would be out of sync with aging ears.

I thought, “What’s going to happen to the pharmaceutical industry? What about people who will want to reinvent their careers? What will become of retirement? Who’s going to pay for all of this?”

All these ideas started flooding my mind, and that flood hasn’t stopped—not for one day in all these years.

Where did the idea of middlescence come from?

It struck me that all of life was going to have to be recharted: “old age” would be moved back and there would be this new middle zone of life, which I began calling middlescence.

People said, “Hey, you can’t just make up a stage of life!” But this isn’t the first time we’ve done this.

For example, the idea of adolescence didn’t exist until relatively recently. At the beginning of the twentieth century, people would go from being children to being adults virtually overnight; there was nothing in between. Then, as we began instituting child labor laws and creating a fuller high school experience, adulthood was postponed. A sociologist named Stanley Hall identified this emerging new stage of life and called it adolescence.

When the boomers came along in the 1950s, we did it again, further postponing adulthood by creating another new stage of life called “young adulthood.”

Where does middlescence fit into the picture?

As people begin reaching their fortieth and fiftieth birthdays, they are no longer turning the corner to old age as they had done in my grandparents’ time. Instead, it has become a time of continued vitality with an appetite for new beginnings and personal reinvention.

So we’re not simply living longer, we’ve invented an entirely new life stage.

Exactly. This is an entirely new landscape that we’ve never charted before. People tend to assume that living longer simply means being old longer. But I’m convinced that our entire concept of how we live our lives is shifting.

Historically we have lived what I call the linear life plan: first you learn; then you have a period of intense work, for three or four decades; and then, if you’re fortunate enough to have a bit of longevity, you have a period of time to rest and relax a bit before you die. Learn, work, rest, die—so more longevity simply means stretching out the “rest” part a bit longer.

But that’s not what people are doing. Instead, people are going back to school, or quitting their jobs and starting whole new careers. Finding themselves widowed or divorced at sixty or sixty-five, they’re thinking, maybe it’s not too late to fall in love again. Or they’ve come through a battle with cancer and think, “Hey, rather than assuming I’m in the bottom inning, maybe there’s still time for me to rebuild my health and have a fantastic new life in front of me.”

Instead of assuming that linear life plan, we’re starting to think in terms of a cyclic life plan. It is becoming a story not of the rise and fall of an individual, but of continual rebirth and reinvention.

Remember the “midlife crisis”? The idea was that life is like a climb up Mount Everest. When you hit year fifty you reach the summit, look around and see this fantastic view—and that’s the highest point you’ll ever reach. From there on, you’re descending with every passing day: your view will grow more dim, your expanse more contracted, and you’ll gradually move to the sidelines.

But not any more.

No, I don’t think that’s what anybody wants. I think people are saying, “Hey, I’m forty-five—maybe I have another good forty-five years ahead of me!” Or, “I’m sixty and still feel pretty great; maybe it’s time to jump off and begin the greatest work of my life.”

We recently did a massive study that found about 75 percent of boomers would like to work in retirement. When we asked what kind of work arrangement they’d like, they said, “Maybe I’d like to start my own business, be my own boss.” They want more schedule flexibility and a better balance between work and leisure.

Fully 60 percent said they’d like to begin a whole new career. When my parents were in their late fifties, they weren’t thinking about new careers—they were happy just to be getting close to the finish line.

Years ago, a friend shared an interesting pair of memories. When he was a boy, his grandfather passed away at the age of sixty-two. At the funeral, people talked about how he had led such a long and rich life. Years later, as fate would have it, the man’s son (my friend’s father) died at exactly the same age—but at his funeral everybody said, “It’s so sad … he died so young!”

In a single generation, sixty-two went from “such a long life” to “he died so young!”

To what extent is this drive for a new career in middlescence driven by a desire to make a contribution to society?

All the studies show that money is not the main reason people want to keep working. Money is typically the second reason, but the main reason is mental stimulation.

We’ve all got an older aunt or an uncle who’s kind of youthful, who is sharp on the Internet, who may be working on some kind of interesting career or community project. We like getting together with them, it’s always fun and stimulating.

Then we’ve got this other aunt or uncle the same age who’s out of work and just watches TV or plays golf all the time. And every time you see them, they tell you the same joke.

Now, which version of aging do we want to emulate?

No contest.

We seek a version of maturity that’s still turned on, one where we’re connected and our mind is engaged, where we’re continuing to be productive and useful.

I wrote a book called The Power Years that was due to come out in the middle of September, 2005. Two weeks before the book’s release, Katrina hit, and I decided to donate all the earnings from the new book to Habitat for Humanity for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

I got on the phone with Jonathan Reckford, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity, and explained my pledge. He told me how appreciative he was, and then he said, “You know, Ken, a lot of people your age are going through what you’re going through.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He said, “You know, you’ve got that gnawing feeling.”

I asked, “What gnawing feeling?”

And he said, “You’re trying to make the transition from success to significance.”

And he was right. Too often, our twentieth-century version of maturity left out the crucial element of purpose. For many of us, hanging up our cleats and “retiring” just isn’t enough. In our mature years, we want to have our minds stimulated and maybe continue earning an income—but we also want to be engaged in something that feels meaningful, that has purpose, that allows us to feel lit up and turned on. In fact, this month I’m completing work on my next book, which is titled With Purpose. I believe this theme is going to emerge as a major challenge for how we might live the rest of our lives.

When my father, who was a conductor and musicologist, hit retirement age, he said, “Ah, finally—now I can get some work done!”

Is that right? That’s great! (laughs)

And he did; he was working on projects he loved till the day he died, at eighty-nine.

I’ve met quite a few people like your dad, these elder-heroes, age pioneers who give you a new sense of the possibilities. So much of our media, marketing and advertising is designed to glorify youth. We need more fantastic role models of who we could be at fifty-five, seventy-five or ninety-five.

Many of our readers are in their own home-based networking businesses, which is typically not what they started out to do, and they’re doing it for all the reasons you describe: for the challenge and the money, but also to get engaged in new ways and to make a difference.

I would add one more key ingredient: freedom. When you ask people who’ve reached their fortieth or fiftieth birthday to describe their ideal job situation, they talk about having the freedom to work when they want, where they want and how they want.

A lot of people never quite had the opportunity to really go for it when they were in their twenties and thirties, with all the demands, obligations and pressures of that time. Sometimes you have to go around the block a few times before you can figure out which direction you really want to go.

For a lot of people, middlescence can become the most liberating and energizing time of their lives. Rather than being a second choice, I often hear people say, “Why didn’t I do this sooner? I feel so much better doing this!”

What do you see life looking like twenty years from now?

Twenty years from now I believe we’ll see old age being reinvented as the boomers land in that final stage of life. There will continue to be extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine and the sciences that could very well elevate life expectancy by five, ten or twenty years.

I think living to ninety or 100 will become commonplace. The eighty-year-old entrepreneur, the ninety-year-old newlywed, the 100-year-old explorer who goes up into space, these will be the new and extraordinary stories of the decades to come.

I also think it will be increasingly challenging for governments and employers to fund the multiplying numbers of pensioners and retirees, and therefore the responsibility for creating a secure and long life will fall largely on our own shoulders. We’ll see a shift from entitlement to self-reliance. This is going to be tough news for some people, but the earlier we come to grips with it, the better.

Any parting words of wisdom for living a long, vital life?

First: Take really good care of your body, because there’s payback. If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying the aging process, it’s that carrying that extra weight, not exercising and getting the rest you need, all ultimately take their toll. And it’s never too late to make improvements.

Second: Every major study points out that at the end of the day, it’s not what you own or how much money you have, it’s the people you love and who love you back that form the most valuable dimensions of your life. All too often, we don’t take the time to nourish and cultivate our relationships at the level they deserve.

Third: You don’t want to get to the last days of your life and say, “I could’ve, I should’ve, I would’ve … but I didn’t.” There are dreams to be dreamed, risks to be taken, people to know, opportunities to be seized—and if you don’t grab those moments, they will pass you by.

Finally, it’s not just about the me, it’s about the we. Erik Eriksson, one of my favorite mentors, said, “We are what remains of us.” We are what we leave behind.

This longer life span is not ours simply so we can keep being a twenty-year-old for another sixty years. It’s to allow us to grow up and give back. Adulthood and maturity is a time not only to cultivate knowledge and wisdom but also to replant your life and refertilize the soil, to pass on your experiences and life lessons to your family and to your community.