Toward a New Rite of Passage

January 8, 2020


​​Knowing I had “aged out” about 3 years before my agency happened to mention it, I was prepared for the conversation, lawyer on hand, knew my terms for leaving. So, when my GM and Head of HR walked in one late January morning, and said “It’s time,” I took it with grace, expressing gratitude for the largely joyful ride it had been. In my 25 years at this marketing agency, I’d discovered latent capabilities, built a professional identity, grown to become a pivotal contributor and leader. I’d developed an industry-wide reputation and a strong community of clients, colleagues and contacts.


For a while, I had a sense of completion; was relieved for the respite from a rushed, anxious, travel-heavy life. As a single mother, I’d craved more time with my 11-year-old; time when I wasn’t overwhelmed or distracted – to cook a meal, take a walk, go on vacation together.


It was months before the ambush came and I was intermittently shaken by spasms of grief. I found myself missing day in, day out rhythms of work: the colleague dropping by to vent, the brainstorming sessions that broke through knotty creative challenges, the conversations with clients who valued my counsel. I’d lost my professional identity, community and the context in which I’d exercised creativity and power for the majority of my adulthood. In some ways, I felt excluded from the flow of ordinary life in New York with its take-no-prisoners work culture. And, perhaps most painful, the great generational adventure I’d been part of – that of women achieving personal growth, contribution and purpose through excelling in their professions – seemed over for me.


This transition was becoming far more difficult and isolating than I’d ever imagined. While I no longer wanted full-time agency work, I desired to keep contributing. Everything I knew about myself told me that I needed meaningful pursuits to keep my enthusiasm, energy and sense of self alive. Then, about six months after the curtain came down on my full-time career, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s so losses were piling up.


For a while there, my experience felt less like “leaning out” than being hurled from the nest.


Would it be hyperbole to say I longed for a new rite of passage, one of those moments that society recognizes as a time of transition when someone leaves one life phase and crosses the dangerous border to another? Typically, the community provides rituals to structure the pain of loss, wisdom to support the “initiate” in new responsibilities and cultural scripts to help her meet unfamiliar challenges.


While it may or may not meet threshold criteria for a true rite of passage, the transition out of the conventional workforce by a massive cohort of Boomer women is a phenomenon our society is seeing for the first time. And, whether we’ve aged out, were fired, retired or quit, this moment, rich in both loss and opportunity, seems not yet formally recognized by the culture. Much of the existing acknowledgement comes from financial planners who see an opportunity. Yet most of us prefer cohorts to accountants to guide us into the next phase. Where are our cultural templates? Our models, muses, traditions?


While they’re not yet fully in place, there’s evidence that Boomer women themselves have begun to pioneer a way forward. Books like Women Rowing North, conferences like The Atlantic’s Aging Up, organizations like LEANING OUT, professionals specializing in transitional guidance and coaching are rising up to meet the need.


I, for one, am grateful to participate. Recognition and validation by the culture provides a huge psychological lift. Shame and blame retreat in the face of “normalization.” It helps us leapfrog denial and embrace the last third of life with energy, purpose and a measure of delight.


While it took much reflection, coaching and exploration to evolve my own “third third” agenda, it includes wayfinding for other women who are now experiencing what I’ve already been through. It’s a joy to be part of the open-armed tribe that waits to greet those who come next.


Robin Reif is a strategist, consultant and coach. She consults with companies on positioning and strategic growth; and with individuals on life transitions. She is a graduate of Georgetown’s Executive Leadership and Coaching Program and is also a writer-storyteller. Her most recent essay appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times.

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