Back in the ‘60s when we graduated from high school and headed off to university the world was opening up for us in ways our mothers could not imagine. Inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements, coupled with the Viet Nam war protests we believed that we could change the world. Employers were just beginning to understand that equal opportunity for women could result in greater profits, and we were free to launch our careers knowing that we had control over when our children would come along. The world was our oyster and we stood tall, optimistically entering the workforce ready to demonstrate that a woman could do as much as any man. Often more.
It never came easy. Time and again we had to prove our worth. Following the rules and agendas set by the established hierarchy, taking a back seat at meetings, ghost-writing, cleaning up our bosses’ mistakes and often working longer and harder than our male colleagues was the norm. We endured countless insensitive comments and inappropriate actions, but we did it. We climbed the ladder despite the obstacles and we figured out how to handle the responsibilities of both home and career. It was the best of times and the worst of times.
Now, here we are, at traditional retirement age, but is it for us? We look back over full, exciting and challenging careers and we see how far we have come. We bask in our success and we look ahead, wondering how we will maintain our vitality for the decades to come.
Sometimes it seems like the worst of times. Our bodies aren’t what they once were no matter how many crunches we do or how much Botox we use. Injuries take more time to heal. Annual medical tests claim more space on our calendars. Wrinkles and grey hair sneak up on us. Even worse, our cognitive abilities begin a disconcerting decline. Names and dates elude us embarrassingly, and we make jokes about “seniors’ moments” to hide our dismay. Relationships also change as we mature and learn what really matters to us. Sometimes a separation or estrangement shatters our world, and sometimes the empty nest leaves us lonely and feeling under-valued. We reluctantly learn what it is to grieve as we lose our parents and, sadly, friends or siblings. Long-held beliefs can seem simplistic and unhelpful, as we question life’s meaning and our purpose.
It can also be the best of times. Once we accept the physical changes that accompany aging, we can stop obsessing about our appearance. We can become gentler with ourselves and slow down. Though our data recall often needs buffering time, we recognize that experience has given birth to wisdom. Through the ups and downs of life and love we have learned that forgiveness and compassion trump resentment and bitterness. If we are fortunate, we understand that the many losses we experience are bearable with appropriate sorrow and mourning. Regardless of what’s been lost, we can adjust to a new normal and resume the enjoyment of life. And finally, we have the freedom to examine what is truly meaningful to us.
Meaning and purpose do not fall out of the sky. They must be sought and pursued. What you choose to do in this phase of life doesn’t need to be grandiose or ambitious to be meaningful to you. Focussing on your family and friends might be enough. However, if you, like many of us, need more, finding an endeavor that aligns with your skills, knowledge, interests and core values is imperative. The more you engage your whole self in what you do, the easier it is to make meaning. You have a lot to give, and if you are lucky, the health and time to do whatever you choose. Sometimes, that’s the problem … you haven’t had such freedom to choose in a long time, and you’ve forgotten how to do it.
Take the time to reflect and deepen your self-understanding. Give yourself the gift of self-acceptance. This can be the best of times for you. It’s up to you to make it so.