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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Dickinson


In his work life, too, there will be serious difficulties if a man holds a position of formal authority beyond age 65 to 70. If he does so, he is “out of phase” with his own generation and he is in conflict with the generation in middle adulthood who need to assume greater responsibilities

According to Daniel Levin’s ground-breaking book titled The Seasons of a Man’s Life in the early sixties middle adulthood normally comes to an end and late adulthood begins. The character of living is altered in fundamental ways as a result of numerous biological, psychological and social changes. This era needs to be recognized as a distinctive and fulfilling season in life and lasts from about 60 to 85.

At about 60, there is the reality and experience of bodily decline. A man does not however suddenly become “old” at 50 or 60 or 80. In the fifties and sixties, however many mental and physical changes intensify the man’s experience of his own aging and mortality. They remind him that he is moving from “middle age” to a later generation for which our culture has only the terrifying term “old age.” No one of these changes happen to all men. Yet every man is likely to experience several and be greatly affected by them.

There is the increasing frequency of death and serious illness among his loved ones, friends and colleagues. Even if he is in good health and physically active, he has many reminders of his decreasing vigour and capacity. If nothing else, there are more frequent aches and pains.

But he is also likely to have at least one major illness or impairment – be it heart decease, cancer, defective vision or hearing, depression or other emotional distress. He will receive medical warnings that he must follow certain precautions or run the risk of more serious, possibly fatal or crippling illness.

The internal message from his own body, too, tell him to make accommodation or major changes in his mode of life. Of course, men at around 60 differ widely. Some face a late adulthood of serious illness and impairment, while others lead active, energetic lives.

However, every man in the Late Adult Transition must deal with the decline or loss of some of his middle adult powers.

In addition, there is a culturally defined change of generation in the sixties. If the term “middle-aged” is vague and frightening, what about our terminology and imagery for the subsequent years? The commonly used words such as “elderly,” “golden age” and “senior citizen” acquire negative connotations reflecting our personal and cultural anxiety about aging.

To a person in the twenties, it appears that passing 30 is getting “over the hill.” In the thirties, turning 40 is a powerful threat. At every point in life, the passing of the next age threshold is anticipated as a total loss of youth, of vitality and of life itself. The developmental task is to overcome the splitting of youth and age, and find in each season an appropriate balance of the two.

In late adulthood, the archetypical figure of age dominates, but it can take various forms of the creative, wise elder as long as a man retains his connection to youthful vitality, to the forces of growth in self and world.

During the Late Adult Transition, a man fears that the youth within him is dying and that only the old man – an empty, dry structure devoid of energy, interests or inner resources – will survive for a brief and foolish old age. His task is to sustain his youthfulness in a new form of appropriate to late adulthood. He must terminate and modify his earlier life structure.

Once again, the ending of an era brings the culmination of the strivings that were important within it. In late adulthood a man can no longer occupy the centre stage of his world. He is called up, and increasingly calls upon himself, to reduce the heavy responsibility with society and himself.

Moving out of centre stage can be traumatic. A man receives less recognition and has less authority and power. His generation is no longer the dominant one.

As part of the “grandparent” generation within the family, he can at best be modestly helpful to his grown offspring and a source of indulgence and moral support to his grandchildren. But it is time for his offspring, as they approach and enter middle adulthood, to assume the major responsibility and authority in the family. Middle adulthood being an era covering the span from roughly age 40 to 65.

If he does not give up his authority, he is likely to become a tyrannical ruler – despotic, unwise, unloved and unloving – and his adult offspring may become puerile adults unable to love him or themselves.

In his work life, too, there will be serious difficulties if a man holds a position of formal authority beyond age 65 to 70. If he does so, he is “out of phase” with his own generation and he is in conflict with the generation in middle adulthood who need to assume greater responsibilities.

It sometimes happens that a man in his seventies or older retains a pre-eminent position in government, business or other institution. With the following names coming to mind; Mao Tse-tung, Churchill, Ben Gurion, Gandhi, de Gaulle, John D. Rockefeller, Biden, Mugabe as well as numerous of Africa’s presidents.

But, even when a man has a high level of energy and skill, he is ill-advised to retain power well into late adulthood. He tends to be an isolated leader, in poor touch with his followers and overly idealised or hated by them.

The continuity of the generations is disrupted. The generation in middle adulthood (40 to 65) suffers from powerlessness and conformism, while the generation in early adulthood (18 to about 45) suffers from the lack of innovation, moral support and tutelage they need from their immediate seniors.

Some men can retire with dignity and security as early as 50, others as late as 70. Within the range, the age at which a man retires from formal employment, especially from a position of direct authority over others, should reflect his own needs, capabilities and life circumstances.

After “retirement” in this specific sense, he can engage in valued work, but it now stems more from his own creative energies than from external pressure and financial need. Having paid his dues to society, he has earned the right to be and do what is most important to himself.

He is beyond the distinction between work and play. He can devote himself in a seriously playful way to the interests that flow most directly from the depths of the self. Using the youthfulness still within him, he can enjoy the creative possibilities of this season.

A primary developmental task of late adulthood is to find a new balance of involvement with society and with the self. A man in this era is experiencing more fully the process of dying and he should have the possibility of choosing more freely his mode of living.

Greater wisdom regarding the external world can be gained through a stronger centering of self. This does not mean that a man becomes more selfish or vain. Just the opposite. It means that he becomes less interested in obtaining the rewards offered by society, and more interested in utilizing his own inner resources.

If a man creates a new form of self-in-world, late adulthood can be a season as full and rich as the others. Some of the greatest intellectual and artistic works have been produced by men in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. Examples abound: Picasso, Years, Verdi, Freud, Jung, Michelangelo, Tolstoy. Countless other men have contributed their wisdom as elders in a variety of counselling, educative and supporting roles in family and community.

Late adulthood is an era of decline as well as opportunity for development. As a man enters late adulthood, he feels that he has completed the major part – perhaps all – of his life work. His contribution to society and to his own immortality is largely completed. He must arrive at some appraisal of his life.

The developmental task is to gain a sense of the integrity of his life – not simply of his virtue or achievement, but of his life as a whole. If he succeeds in this, he can live without bitterness or despair during late adulthood. Finding meaning and value in his life, however imperfect, he can come to terms with death.

Whatever our values, we cannot live up to them fully. In the end, we must effect a reconciliation with the sources of the flaws and corruptions in our lives. The sources are multiple: they are in ourselves, in our enemies and loved ones, in the imperfect world where each of us tries to build a life integrity. Making peace with all the enemies in self and world is an important part of this task.


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