Career and Jobs

Aging Relevantly: Getting Good At Midlife Transitions

I’ve just become a modern elder. I graduated from the Modern Elder Academy’s program ‘Your Roadmap for Navigating Midlife Transitions’ and am now one of the 1500 global alumni to be unleashed on the world as part of founder Chip Conley’s vision. The goal was to repurpose and empower the accumulated wisdom, energy and experience of humans living longer lives than ever before.

How do you move people through the perfectly predictable confusion as multiple midlife transitions start to gather and overlap? When careers end, children leave, and finances, health and marriages may encounter menacing clouds? The extreme emotionality of this phase shift is often suffered through alone, embarrassed and ashamed that we still haven’t figured it all out. MEA wants to normalise this transition and educate you through its rhythms and risks. It also aims to provide you with a community of transitionists to get through it and emerge the other side with butterfly wings unfolding to fly into your purpose-driven, second-half-of-life future.

Judging from my cohort’s takeaways, it works. In a well-structured 8-week blended learning online program, 150 people ranging in age from their forties to eighties, were introduced to the three stages of transition first described by William Bridges and then beautifully expanded by Vincent Deary in a book called How We Are.

1.    Endings – what you have to leave, let go of, or has just left you, aka the caterpillar phase, hungering after ego and first-half-of-life achievement goals.

2.    The messy middle – the dark forest or liminal space you enter when you are no longer who you were and not yet who you will become. This is the cocoon phase, where you are wrapped in a confusing blindness.

3.    New beginnings – emerging from the cocoon into a process or re-creation, meeting the external changes of life with the internal, psychological process of adapting and growing into a new reality. The butterfly discovers it has become… beautiful.

With a mix of guest speakers, faculty discussions and smaller-group teams, participants are then invited to identify where they are in this arc, and the triple threats that may stop them moving and changing – themselves, their friends and families, or their broader cultural or professional contexts. Each week, the course analyses the 6 P’s of transition that often hit at midlife (what Barbara Waxman, one of the speakers, calls ‘middlescence’): Personal, Professional, Psychological, Physical, Pandemic and Purpose. Each stage engagingly alternates between longevity experts, meditation, body work, journaling and the very popular doses of weekly poetry.

Originally designed as an expensive 2-week getaway to Conley’s base in Baja, Mexico, Covid lockdowns has gifted the program global wings. Online, it becomes immediately more affordable and accessible. It also becomes comfortingly intimate. Connecting with strangers who are all going through the same sort of restless self-questioning and openness to re-invention makes for a potent collective appetite for depth. No deflecting bullshit or cocktail conversations here. You will hear about marriages, divorces, dreams, illness, death, confusion, boredom, unemployment, retirement, financial pressures and family. The joys of midlife.

The talented online learning designer Kari Henley has crafted a state-of-the-art model of blended learning. The pacing and alternating of bite-size videos, live sessions and individual homework in offline pairs matches and accompanies the material and the message. Once you graduate, you join a newly launched Alumni Network run by Leslie Bartlett, spanning 28 countries and nourished by ongoing content, speakers and regional or local events.

Designing my personal future to become a skilled transitionist (and accompanier of transitionists), I’ve been participating in a number of programs aimed at this time of life and transition. MEA is definitely best in class for getting good at managing through midlife and beyond in a powerfully simple program with a manageable length. It will hopefully inspire many others as this approach needs major mainstreaming across our ageing world and societies.

We can’t lose the second half of life and half the population who will soon be passing 50 to ageist attitudes about our own abilities and potential. We all need what Conley calls ‘long life learning,’ and he’s done a great job pioneering it. Equipping people to navigate their midlife transitions with eyes wide open, and their hearts in good hands.

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