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Time to Rethink the Meaning of 50+!

Updated: Aug 28

Chip Conley is the author of Wisdom at Work: The Making of an Modern Elder (Currency, 2018).

I’ve wanted to create a blog for some time now but was unsure of how one starts writing on such an amorphous concept as encore adulthood. A recent article in a local publication – the first one to bring our growing community network - Encore Howard County - to the attention of the public (for which I am very appreciative) - provided me with a jumping off point.

The article used the term “senior” eight times, including in the title and beneath one of the photographs. The message for me after reading it is that there is much work to do to explain what encore adulthood is all about. The word “senior” is definitely not what I hoped to see in an article describing an encore adult. Why? Consider, for example, using the same developmental term to describe individuals at ages 18 and 40; in fact, there are many different terms to differentiate life stages between birth and middle age – e.g., child, adolescent, young adult. So why do we use the term, “senior” to label as one group, all adults between the ages 50 to 100+? For that matter, why do we still use the terms “50+” or “60+” when we are speaking of demographics that span decades, each with different needs and interests?

Due to healthier and longer lives, adults over 50 will also transition between different life stages as they age. A longevity dividend of an extra 10-20+ years actually shows up in the middle of our lives, separating the “younger” older (approximately 50-75 years of age) from the “older” older, or senior. Baby Boomers are pioneering this emerging encore adulthood stage, which generally occurs after traditional careers and raising children, but before old age. Developmental markers of encore adulthood may include a growing sense of mortality, along with a wish for meaningful engagement and the opportunity to leave some sort of legacy – but on one’s own terms. It is not a period of decline, as per the traditional narrative on aging, but one of shifting priorities and decision-making about how we want to purposefully use the gift of time – or longevity dividend – that we have been given.

It is hard to change ideas and definitions about aging and older adults – it’s not something that we think much about, at least until age 50 when the first invitation to join AARP arrives. Encore Howard County’s purpose is to intentionally differentiate (knowing that the boundaries are going to be messy) between middle age, encore adulthood, and senior adulthood. This is not because we don’t believe that the needs and interests of seniors are important. It is because we see the incredible potential of engaging and connecting encore adults as they move into and through this emerging stage of life - both for the individual and our community. What we don’t know yet is how encore adults will decide to use their gift of time, or what resources might best support them. We will continue to shine the spotlight on them so that, in time, both the opportunities available to this demographic, and the impact of their contributions on our community, will help us understand them better. Stay tuned…

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