It is June. Time for seniors to graduate and move on to their next adventure! All across the country there are celebrations for the Class of 2021 as they make their way out of what can only be described as four years of chaos. For them, it all began in 2017-2018. Can you even recall what was happening way back then? Me either.
A Brief Review: 2017-2021
Here are some names that were in the news: Brett Kavanaugh, Jamal Khashoggi, Harry and Meghan, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump, Dr. Fauci. Here are some events that impacted and shaped the lives of those who were both directly and indirectly impacted. There was a shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School, wildfires in California destroyed the town of Paradise, there was an election that resulted in Joe Biden becoming President, and there was a murder of a black man by a white police officer that resulted in a social movement, Black Lives Matter.
Oh, and a world-wide pandemic!
What is it about these years between being a freshman and a senior? The awkward teen-age years of physical and social development. Followed by the tempering and aging process that happens in college or whatever life consists of post-high school. My high school years (’67-’71) were filled with all kinds of turmoil and change. Events that were seared into my memory and which formed many of my beliefs about what life was going to be like included the death of my father the summer before I started high school and political assassinations and riots marking a distinct shift in social values by the time I was awarded my diploma four years later.
As I remember my college years, I became a sophisticated and erudite intellectual. Then again, that might just be my memory. In addition to consuming knowledge, I consumed substances that altered my consciousness to varying degrees. I gained valuable experience in creating lasting friendships throughout my college years that remain to this day. I tried on different personas to see who I was becoming and found one or two that fit pretty well. I also somehow absorbed enough useful information in my brain that I can still call it up after all these years.
The Promise of Graduation
The last two times I graduated, I had a future in front of me. I had a well-trodden path to follow that offered me choices, but was still fairly pre-determined. Assuming I followed that path, I would find a job, get married, have children, retire, enjoy the grandchildren and then die. And all that would take maybe 40 or 50 years if I was lucky. And many of my fellow Boomers did just that.
But that wasn’t what happened for me.
I didn’t get married until I was in my 30s and stayed happily married until my husband’s death 21 years later. I didn’t have children of my own. I had more than one job and more than one career. And I have yet to retire.
For those Boomers who did get married right after high school or college, almost half decided it wasn’t working out for them. While many had children and bought homes by age 30, about one-third never had children at all or ever owned a home.
Boomers are staying in the workforce longer, and unlike our parents, have changed jobs more than once. Many of us went back to school and changed careers all-together after the children were grown. Today there are more entrepreneurs among Boomers than ever before, which may be reflective of our lack of sufficient savings or of our continued search for new experiences.
Now I Am a Senior Once Again
Since I am now once again being called a “Senior” I am wondering when will I graduate this time? What will be the benchmark that leads to the ceremony where I don my cap and gown, receive my diploma, and enter into my next phase of life?
While there is definitely some tongue-in-cheek going on here, I do truly believe that this is a serious topic worth exploring. Developmental psychologists have spent most of their efforts in observing and identifying early childhood stages. The greats (e.g., Erikson, Piaget) basically stopped at early adulthood, giving only minor attention to what happens between our early 20s and death. As our lifespan has extended, it is becoming clearer and clearer that there are developmental stages that emerge after we retire.
What Should I Be Becoming?
Think about it. From a developmental perspective, what are you becoming? What lies in front when you retire? Perhaps it will be downsizing and moving to a retirement community. Perhaps it will mean travel and adventure. Perhaps it will mean taking on different kinds of work, either because you have to or because you are finally able to follow your bliss.
I suggest that what is happening here is a new adult developmental stage where we transition between “doing” and “being”. All the focus of our early years is on acquiring skills and abilities that contribute to creating things (doing). Once those tasks are accomplished, what lies ahead (and what can be incredibly satisfying) is exploring and understanding what it means to just “be”.
This is the territory of spirit and philosophy. Unlike “doing”, “being” is better measured by our feeling side and through introspection. Finding purpose and meaning becomes central to who you are. Tasks include learning to be compassionate with yourself, practicing forgiveness, and just letting things go.
If only observed from the outside, it may appear that you are “doing nothing”. Yet, internally there is much going on. For example, you may find your heart and soul lighting up at a sunrise or sunset with greater frequency. Or, you may hear a piece of music that brings you to tears. Or you may find yourself smiling and crying at the same time when recall a lover’s touch. These are tasks of “being”.
There is no special curriculum to be followed during this final matriculation. There is no diploma to be given, no valedictorian or inspirational speaker to offer advice as you make your transition. There is no possibility of failure.
The class of 2021 has been through so much. In their brief lifetimes, they have seen political upheaval, assassinations, mass death on an unprecedented level and social unrest. Sounds all too familiar to me. My wish for the class of 2021 is that they take the lessons learned these past four years and treat them like treasured friends who will keep them company as they continue their journey. I hope they arrive at a similar place that I have; one of profound gratitude for all I have been given and a desire to leave a legacy of positive change behind.