Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Big Six Oh

What is it about turning sixty? I and a number of my friends will reach this dreaded age this year. It seems to be a particularly tough birthday for several of us. I have already passed several significant birthdays: 
50 (half a century!); 
40 (middle age!); 
39 (last year to be a thirty-something); 
30 (joining the over-thirty crowd, definitely not cool); 
21 (a legal adult, everywhere in North America)
19 (voting and and drinking age, in British Columbia)
16 (not that sweet)
But 60 is different somehow. 

I was just in Vancouver, where I got together with a dear friend for an early birthday celebration. She turns 60 next week, and is not at all happy about it. I asked her why she was finding this birthday to be such a difficult one. She said, "because it means I am f*ing old!"

I asked Rob, who turned sixty a few years ago, whether he had found it hard to turn sixty. He said, "no, not at all." The reason why, he explained, was that the collapse of his first marriage a number of years earlier created such a huge and traumatizing change in his life that a little thing like a particular birthday meant nothing in comparison. 

I also have had a traumatizing a life-altering experience in my past, but it hasn't softenened the big six-oh transition for me. Rob is a pretty mellow person, not given to hand-wringing and introspection. He lives each day as it comes along. That might be why he doesn't stress about birthdays. 

I think that the reason that 60 (and similarly 65) is difficult for many of us is that it marks a time of significant transition in our lives. For me, from age 25 to now, I have been focused on having and raising my kids, and on my career. Much else has taken a backseat to those two dominating priorities. Although it has not been a straight, smooth path, nevertheless my focus on these two things has been consistent. But now I am having to make significant decisions about my life path, and indeed, about the rest of my life.

Suddenly, as I turn 60, I have discovered that my focus and priorities are changing. My youngest has graduated from university, and although he has lived with us for this past year, he is starting his first career-related job and soon things will be changing for him. 

I have made the decision to resign from my administrative role and to take up a different, less stressful and less time-intensive position at my place of work. As well, two months from now, I will be taking a lengthy leave before transitioning into that other role. This marks a significant change in my career "ladder-climbing." In essence, I have decided that I will not be pursuing further career progression. This represents a large attitudinal shift from my aims over the last 35 years. 

As I move toward stepping down from my role and the leave from work, my mind is turning to the next step, actual retirement. I am thinking about all the projects and life goals that I have been deferring for so long, because my work has dominated so much of my time and attention, not to mention also raising a family. When am I going to finish writing those novels, or really get into painting, if not soon? There isn't that much time left.

Breaking my foot last Fall has made me realize that deferring some things for much longer may mean that they will never happen. For example, my foot, although healed, is still giving me a lot of pain. Does this mean that my days of backpacking and long hikes is over? Speaking of that, when am I going to go heliskiing, river rafting, and to Machu Pichu? Sixty is a wake up call. 

I have a friend whose long and successful career is coming to an end, not because she was ready to retire but because a reorganization of her workplace now has made retirement seem to be the most appealing option for her. I have another friend who just turned sixty who has sold her longtime business, has begun travelling to many interesting parts of the world, and has started writing a book. Yet another friend who is turning 60 has made the decision to resign from her part-time teaching position and is trying to decide when to step away from her clinical practice to begin full retirement. 

While I muse about retirement, time keeps marching on. My grandchildren are having birthdays, and I live far away from them. They will only be toddlers for a short time. Our friends are growing older, and some are losing their health, and some have died. 

Sixty is just a number. But in our decimal system based on ten, it marks a decade. The decade of one's sixties is the decade of the culmination of career, leaving the work world, and taking stock of life. In turning sixty, one enters the late stage of life, a chance to review what it means to have a good life, and a final chance to decide whether there are still some other components or tasks yet to be completed in our individual projects of making a meaningful life. 


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