In Make the Most of Every Decade, Sandra Gordon writes: From crawling, walking and babbling to the angst and rebellion of the tween and teen years, children go through a predictable set of developmental stages. But stages aren’t just a kid thing. In fact, every decade poses its own predictable set of “normative tasks,” says Dr. Diane Finley, a developmental psychologist at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. That’s psychology speak for adult milestones. But this isn’t your mother’s straightforward life track. In the past, you got married and had all your kids by your late 20s, spent your 30s raising them and began seeing them off to college by the time you hit your 40s, which paved the way for the empty nest. Now, it’s more of a zigzag. You may be spending your 20s and 30s laying the groundwork for your career and not getting married and starting a family until your mid-30s or 40s or even later. That timing can shift your personal course of development and the life issues you’re dealing with, so can divorce and the fact that we’re living longer.
Whatever your situation, are you on track to living your life to the fullest? Take charge of your fate with this decade-by-decade guide to maximizing your personal sense of fulfillment.
Your 20s: The “Who Am I?” Years
Your 20s are a time of self-exploration, confidence and skill building as you learn how to exist in the workforce. This decade is most forgiving because you’re young and expectations among employers (and your parents) are lower, especially if you’re supporting yourself and therefore paying your own tab. If you get married in your 20s and have kids right away, you’ll have less leeway to explore different aspects of your personality because your life won’t be just about you anymore. But whether your priorities are centered around career or family, you spend your 20s trying to answer the central question: Who am I?
Have a plan. Your 20s can be an exciting and tumultuous time, but don’t wing them entirely. Formulate a basic plan about what you’d like to accomplish personally and professionally and where you’d like to be at the end of the decade. But stay flexible.
“So many people bum themselves out when they don’t live according to the timetable they’ve got in their head,” says Dr. Beth Erickson, a developmental psychologist in Minnetonka, Minn.
If, for example, you don’t get married at age 27 like you thought you would because Mr. Right hasn’t come along yet, don’t panic or blame yourself.
“There’s a difference between having a basic plan and trying to control the universe to meet that plan,” Erickson says.
Keep trying to accomplish your goals or feel free to change them along the way and shift your timing, if necessary. Better to do that than, say, marry Mr. Not Right just because he came along at the”right” time, or to ditch Mr. Right just because you didn’t plan on getting married until your 30s.
Go ahead: Move about the cabin. While you’re living your plan, feel free to deviate from it. Your 20s are perfect for trying out various jobs, cities and partners, so give yourself permission to test your boundaries.
“There will never be a better time to experiment with different life experiences and discover facets of your personality,” Erickson says.
In your 20s, it’s okay to quit your small-town accounting position or try your hand at acting in Los Angeles or go to law school. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t feel bad.
“Lots of things we think of as mistakes in our 20s really aren’t,” says Erickson. “They’re just experiences and choices that didn’t fit us.”
Give yourself points for trying and for the invaluable lessons you’ll learn about yourself along the way.
Seek support. If you get married and have kids in your 20s, “get emotional support from other moms-to-be,” says Shellie Fidell, a psychotherapist in private practice at Women’s Healthcare Partnership in St. Louis, Mo. Connecting with other moms online is a great way to get parenting tips, dissolve the isolation of taking care of a newborn and feel part of a like-minded community. Also, get a babysitter at least once a month so you can forge an identity as a couple. No matter what your age, “don’t make your kids the center of your life,” says Erickson. “It’s not good for you, your marriage or your children.”
30s: Get Ready for Multitasking Madness
By your 30s, you know more about who you are because you have a whole decade of life experience under your belt and, hopefully, some career questions answered. You’re hunkering down in a profession and feeling more sure of yourself. And if you’re marriage minded, you’re likely to settle down now if you haven’t already. According to the CDC, the majority of men and women in the United States are married for the first time by age 35.
Tweak your plan. There’s still time to revise your career goals.
“It’s okay to pick up any loose threads from your 20s and weave them into the larger tapestry of your life,” Erickson says.
You may be older than others starting out in your profession, but that’s more of a psychological hurdle than anything else, she says. However, if you still can’t commit to something or someone, explore why. Your 30s are typically a settling-down period both personally and professionally.
Strike a balance. If you’re starting your family now, you have the added benefit of doing it after you’ve had the chance to develop yourself professionally. Your main challenge will be determining how to juggle it all in a way that feels right for you.
“If you need help figuring it all out, find a mommy mentor — someone who is your vision of an ideal mom, who you think has got it together in the ways you’d like to be together as a mom,” says Sarah Welch, mother of two and the author of “Pretty Neat: Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection.”
What’s great about your 30s and motherhood is that since you’ve had time for yourself and accomplished some professional goals, you may be more psychologically ready for the responsibilities and sacrifices of parenthood. You’re also likely to know other new moms, so finding a support system shouldn’t be a problem. Your marriage is probably on solid footing since you’re older and more confident in yourself and in your relationship, points out Dr. Margaret Howard, a psychologist at Women and Infants’ Hospital in Providence, R.I.
40s: Primed for Achievement
Whether your children are toddlers, off to college or somewhere in between, you have lots of life experience under your belt and hopefully a solid set of marketable skills by the time you’re 40. You’re also at your creative and productive peak, says Dr. Dorothy Singer, senior research scientist emeritus in the department of psychology at Yale University. So if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to do or overcome, whether it’s switching careers, going back to school or starting your own business, now’s the time to pounce.
“It’s your second wind, an opportunity to grow again,” says Singer.
Your creative and productive fervor is fueled by the fact that your parents, though they’re getting older, don’t necessarily need care yet. Still, it’s a reminder that you’re not going to live forever, either, which can spur the urge to make a drastic shift by moving from business to teaching or social work, or by volunteering in the community so you can make a more meaningful mark on the world.
Tune your attitude. Don’t let negative thinking, such as “I’m too old for this,” undermine your resolve to try new things. When you’re getting out of your comfort zone, you will be uncomfortable. Just get used to it and press on. What’s great about now is that if you make a mistake, it won’t feel devastating like it might have in your 20s.
“We learn that we can overcome things as we get older and that we can make the best decisions for us, even if others disapprove,” Finley says.
Make friends of all ages. Having at least five friends you can confide in is as important to your health as eating right and exercising.
“Good interpersonal relationships act as a buffer against stress,” says Dr. Micah Sadigh, associate professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, Penn. “These friends should be people you can talk to without being judged, evaluated or criticized, somebody who will listen to you and provide support.”
Think of whom you would call right now if you were in a crisis and needed help.
“A lot of people have this huge list on their cell phone but can name only one person,” says Sadigh.
If you can’t come up with a list, make an effort to make new friends by taking a class, joining a professional group or culling your life for acquaintances with good friend potential.
Cast a wide net. It’s ideal to have friends who are both older and younger than you.
“Both can give you perspectives on the world you can learn from,” Singer says.
And if your life is centered around your kids or your work, expand it in other directions by developing a hobby or volunteering.
“Your identity should never be wrapped up in one thing,” says Finley.
Kids eventually grow up, and, as we’ve seen from this recent economic downturn, jobs can evaporate.
“Like your investment portfolio, make sure your life is diversified so that if one thing changes — and it eventually will — you won’t feel devastated,” she says.
Your 50s: the 50,000 Mile Checkup
In your 50s, expect emotional turmoil as the reality of your parents’ and your own mortality looms larger.
“The 50s are when most women start intuitively questioning their assumptions about what their life has been and how they want to spend the rest of it,” says Erickson.
If you’ve arrived at this decade without cancer or heart disease, you can expect to live relatively healthfully until age 80.
“That’s a whole other lifetime and another reason why these questions take on such poignancy now,” says Erickson.
How will you spend these bonus decades? If your kids are going off to college, these questions will have a greater sense of urgency as your caregiver role ends.
The good news: “If your identity hasn’t been wrapped up in your kids, it can feel liberating when they leave home, although in this economy, of course, they may not be gone for good,” Finley says.
Soul search. Not knowing your next move is an uncomfortable junction. Erickson advises struggling to answer tough questions such as, “What has my life been about?” and “Who am I now and who do I want to be?”
“Listen to what your soul is telling you and reckon with your mistakes,” she advises.
Don’t set goals and implement a program immediately. Instead, “feel your answers through,” she advises, and allow yourself to not feel fully centered, to not feel absolutely at the top of your game. If you don’t take the time to contemplate, you risk fixing the wrong problem and eroding your chance at the happiness and satisfaction you’re seeking. Your goal at this stage is to discover a renewed sense of purpose. It may take you a while to figure out what’s now going to get you up in the morning and what your legacy will be, she says.
Raise your career consciousness. If you’re dissatisfied career wise or are itching to get back into the workforce but don’t know where to begin, Dr. Carol Kauffman, founder of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Ma., suggests determining your character strengths by taking the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths. The free survey, developed, in part, by Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center in Philadelphia, Pa., generates a report indicating your top five signature strengths, with a description of each. You can use this information to figure out which volunteering venue will be the most satisfying, get a job that’s a good fit with who you are now or change your current job to match your strengths.
“If you’re a hairdresser, for example, and one of your strengths is the ‘capacity to be loved and to love,’ what would really float your boat would be to concentrate on how to make your client’s day,” says Kauffman.
On the other hand, if your strength was creativity, you might want to concentrate on cutting techniques and experimenting with hair products. Your efforts will pay off.
“If you can make your job or hobby line up with your character strengths, you will be happier,” Kauffman says.
Take baby steps. Whatever changes you decide to make, start small and go slowly so you can test along the way. If you want to move across the country, for example, take an extended vacation there first to see if you really like it.
“By taking baby steps, it’s a lot easier to make mid-course corrections,” Erickson says.
And no matter what your age or stage, consider yourself a continual work in progress.
“It’s all about being courageous enough to face yourself and figure yourself out,” Erickson says.
Your 60s: Don’t Retire, Reorganize
In your grandparents’ and parents’ generation, retirement at age 65 — and the proverbial gold watch — defined the decade. But not anymore. “The recession, for one thing, may cause many people to stay in the work force longer, and I think it’s good they do,” says Dr. Virginia Revere, a developmental psychologist in Alexandria, Va., and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. And since we’re living longer than previous generations, 60 really is the new 50, though maybe with a tad less energy.
Work it. If you’ve been pink slipped or just don’t want to work full-time any longer because you’re sick of commuting and working 10-hour days, consider going part-time, starting your own business or finding a meaningful volunteer position, something that can give your day structure, provide you with a social network and make you feel productive. Each of these can evaporate if you quit working cold turkey, which can leave you feeling lost and useless. “No matter what your age, it’s important to feel that you have some kind of value in society,” says Revere. Timing is key. “Your 60s can pave the way for the next 30 years. Set yourself up now with hobbies and interests so you can just keep going in your 70s and 80s,” Revere says.
Go clubbing. If you don’t have family nearby or a good friend or two you can confide in, do what you can to develop close friends — some of whom are local so you can meet in person. Consider them an investment in your future. “People with close family or friends are less likely to become ill as they get older than people who don’t,” says Revere. Scout for places to find like-minded buddies of all ages. Are there clubs you can join or classes you can take in your community? It’s important to make new connections, especially if you do retire, so you can rebuild your life’s social fabric that may have otherwise revolved around work.
Push yourself mentally and physically. “Place yourself in situations in which a lot is asked of you and set intermediate and long-term goals,” says Dr. Robert S. Wilson, senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Your brain thrives on stimulation, especially heavy-hitter tasks such as learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument.
Likewise, if you’re not an avid exerciser, get moving. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which tracked 284 runners and 156 nonrunners for 21 years, found that runners who ran five hours per week were able to function physically and cognitively better in their daily lives as they got older. “What really surprised us is that the runners didn’t just experience less heart disease, but fewer cancers, neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s and infections like pneumonia as well,” says Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, the study’s lead author. All told: “Aerobic exercise keeps the immune system young,” she says.
Exercise, in general, also helps prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis, among a host of other benefits. Don’t like to run? Don’t sweat it. Just do whatever you like that’s aerobic and fun. Your favorites may be swimming or daily walking. Aim for just 20 minutes of daily activity that’s vigorous enough to leave you breathless if you try to talk, Chakravarty says.
Your 70s: Stay Busy, Travel
If you’re in relatively good health, your 70s will look or feel much different than your 60s. “You can do most of the things you did before,” says Revere. So keep up the good habits you established in your 60s or start them now if you haven’t already, such as getting active in your community if you retire during this decade. Even if you feel like you don’t have the energy and stamina you once did or find yourself with an illness to contend with, don’t let that stop you from attacking your to-do list, which can be a lifeline by giving your life a sense of purpose.
Don’t act your age. Rebel against societal stereotypes about aging, such as, “You don’t have to do that anymore. You’re retired.” While it’s true that there are a lot of things you probably don’t have to do anymore, such as commute in rush-hour traffic, “believing those kinds of messages is a form of self-handicapping,” says Dr. Jacqui Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Remember, age is just a number. Don’t let it stop you from doing whatever you want, whether it’s continuing working, taking up salsa dancing or seeing the world. “Your 70s are a good time to travel and visit all the relatives you might have wanted to before,” says Revere. To push the aging envelope, consider yourself a role model for your children and grandchildren and show ’em how it’s done!
Make your move. If you live in a rural area or the same house your raised your kids in but the group of friends and neighbors you once had when they were growing up is long gone, think about moving to a more urban area that caters to your needs. “I’ve known people to buy a house in the country because it’s beautiful, but it’s isolated,” says Revere. “I think we do best as we get older if we live in areas where we can walk places and there are other people around.”
Your 80s: Don’t Let Illness Define You
In your 80s, you might not have the energy you once did. Your health might have its ups and downs, too. “Your 80’s can have its share of odd illnesses,” admits Revere, who is 81. But don’t let that stop you from being active in your community, participating in hobbies and even tapping into your inner Betty White and working if you’re up for it. “People who sit back and do nothing don’t do well,” Revere says. Not that she would know personally. She’s still a practicing psychotherapist with a full roster of patients.
Modify your routine. “Not being able to maintain your independence is the thing you worry most about as you get older,” says Revere. To stay mobile, exercise your options. If you’ve always played tennis, you don’t need to try to play for six hours at a stretch like you used to when you were younger. But why not try to play for half an hour several times a week? Tweak the rest of your routine, too, so that it continues to work for you. “I don’t drive well at night, for example, so I go out with friends at lunch instead of dinner,” Revere says.
Become a silver surfer. Getting older can often feel isolating, but the Internet can help keep you connected. An annual poll of 100 U.S. centenarians sponsored by Evercare, for example, found that many used text messaging, instant messaging, iPods and other technology to stay in touch with friends and family. They also used the Web to stay abreast of current events and popular culture. Researchers credit technology for helping them thrive socially and stay mentally spry despite their years. If they can do it, and they’re at the century mark, so can you. If you’re not familiar with the Internet or e-mail, ask family members for help or consider taking an online class to familiarize yourself. And from what we know about pushing the mental envelope, even learning how to use Facebook or the latest whatever may help keep your brain young.”
From Make the Most of Every Decade, Sandra Gordon