Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, Contributor
Nov. 10, 2021
There are many theories of adult development, but they lean to the complicated. If we are going to live to 100, it’s time we get a better grip of what to expect – and how to navigate - longer lives.
And why the extra decades that science has gifted us this past century changes the shape of life as a whole. So here’s my very simple proposition, gleaned from decades of coaching and dozens of interviews of people transitioning between different phases of their lives. It’s called the Four Quarters.
Partly tongue in cheek, and partly to spoof our usual short-term thinking, I’ve used language familiar to businesspeople the world over. I refer to each quarter as the finance folk do – Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4. If you are more of a romantic, literary type, you may be more comfortable with metaphors of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. But whatever you call it, the fundamentals of the Four Quarters remain the same. There is an arc, a challenge and a purpose to each quarter. And understanding them helps to understand where you are, where you’ve been and where you are headed. It’s a new road map for life that allows you to set and flex your speed so you can pace yourself for the long haul.
Q1 – GROW (age 0-24)
Humans have studied childhood far more than adulthood. While the dance through the visibly distinct phases of childhood are now very familiar to your average anxious parent, ‘adulthood’ has often been, well, everything else. There are far more theories about Q1 than any other quarter. The developmental stages of childhood, including in utero, have been spliced, diced and dissected for decades. Adolescence and its discontents arrived on our life maps in 1904. As society has grown more complex, adulthood has been pushed ever later. At the start of the 21st century, a distinct phase was coined for those aged 18 to 25 called ‘ emerging adulthood.’ It describes a "roleless role" where the young explore a wide variety of activities, still unconstrained by "role requirements." Q1 is a time to learn, explore and grow in multiple dimensions – physically, relationally intellectually. Childhood for an increasingly complex world.
Q2 – ACHIEVE (age 25-49)
Q2 is what people used to call ‘adulthood.’ Finding work, living independently, building relationships and families, careers and professions are all part of Q2’s fundamental role of what kids now call ‘adulting.’ Q2 is often about proving oneself in the world, often in response (or reaction) to the script handed down by your culture, context or family. These roles can suddenly become quite gendered, to the surprise of many in Q2, depending on where you live, whether you have children, and how crises like Covid reshuffle familial and work responsibilities. But the idea of achievement runs through Q2, whether it is personal or professional. Proving yourself, often to society’s benchmarks, is the central task. Once you succeed in jumping through other’s hoops, you’ve built the confidence to design your own.
One of the great gifts of the Four Quarters is to reframe what many experience as the urgency of Q2- especially women. There is too much to do in a single quarter to do everything well. And young parents in their 30s and 40s often think their family choices will sink their careers. Lengthening careers, and the rising visibility of many older leaders (and American presidents), gives Q2-ers the option of a different pace for their personal and professional lives. My career advice for harried, stressed out 30-year-olds? Breathe deeply, and plan for maximum impact in Q3.
Q3 – BECOMING (age 50-74)
The Third Quarter is the new piece in our longer life puzzle. Many people hear the news about longevity and assume that this adds years to the end of life, tagged on to the end of Q4. But instead, longer lives have a different effect – one that impacts us at almost every age:
- Q1: It lengthens Q1,
- Q2: turns Q2 into a shorter, first-half-of-adulthood chapter,
- Q3: invents Q3 as an entirely new phase of mature, active adulthood, and
- Q4: pushes older age later, and lengthens it.
Acknowledging the existence and specific characteristics of Q3 is what currently needs attention and awareness. Understanding that we are increasingly healthy, active and engaged into our 70s (if not later) changes the shape and pacing of both personal and professional aspirations over time. As careers stretch from 30-year sprints to 50-year marathons , breaks for everything from parenting and education to side-hustles and transitions will become more common and more acceptable. Parents who choose to invest more time in child-raising in Q2 may invest more time in careers or causes in Q3. Or vice versa.
Almost 40% of the US labour force is currently over 50. Management guru Peter Drucker predicted this. In ageing societies, he forecast, the future workforce would be divided into the over and under-50s, with very different goals and motivations. Companies urgently need to awaken to this dramatic shift. Most haven’t even got it on their radar. Older Boomers are leading the way, laid off in vast numbers during the pandemic, they are starting businesses, volunteering and hungry to find ways of leveraging and contributing their skills in a still-ageist world reticent to value them. Yet. They may be the answer to our forthcoming labour shortages. There will be big movement in this quarter over the next… quarter century.
Q4 – HARVESTING (age 75-100)
We are profoundly imprinted by how our parents aged – and died. When and why they retired, what they then did with their times and their lives, and how contented they were makes a profound impression on their offspring. Our generation does not have many models of aspirational ageing. Dying is even worse. We’ve lost the art of what my colleague Dr. Swati Lodha calls the ‘wise demise.’ Instead, as Atul Gawande has written in Being Mortal, we’ve tried hard to eliminate death entirely. We need to bring it back and learn how to embrace this final transition more skilfully and intentionally. I write this as my own mother, at 96, feels she has been locked up in hospice by her children…
Responses are slowly emerging, from mindful ageing to assisted dying, seeking to capture the unexplored richness of our final quarter. Research like Harvard’s 75-year-long Grant Study shows that the most important ingredient to a happy life are the relationships we’ve built and nurtured across decades. That’s why I’ve called this phase Harvest. You reap what you’ve spent a lifetime sowing – which includes a willingness to continue growing - or not. For those who have sown well, Q4 becomes a time of generativity, legacy, giving back, grandparenting and purpose. For too many, it’s a time of loneliness, poverty (especially for women ) and despair.
It’s Not A Crisis – It’s a Quarterly Transition
The media, coaches and therapists love to claim a new crisis. Much of the literature emerging around transitions between these Four Phases frames it as the sexy-selling idea of victims and trauma. The Midlife Crisis has been around for decades, rife with the stereotype of balding men dumping wrinkled wives for younger models - the nurses, purses or trophies of later lives. There are certainly examples of this, but the more reality is that more than two thirds of silver divorces are women walking out the door to craft newly independent quarters of their own.
Along this narrative line, no one now is spared the clanging call of a good, client-creating crisis. The young suffer from them as early as 25, with the invention of the Quarter-Life Crisis. And a recent book introduces the Later-Life Crisis, which distinguishes between the traditional Q2 Midlife Crisis, defined as a search for meaning, and the new, Q3 Crisis summarised as a loss of relevance.
But what if none of these moments merit the ‘crisis’ moniker at all? What if the labels we toss too glibly about simply add oil to the obligatory, creative fires of growth? What if instead, we framed these as perfectly predictable, garden variety transitions that all humans pass through as they age and (hopefully) mature? That every quarter of a thinking human’s life invites a thorough re-evaluation - and some hard choices. We each have multiple futures open to us. The dawn of a new quarter is a prime time to digest the lessons of the quarter just passed and consciously design the one to come. What most shocks participants in the Midlife ReThink workshops I run is that they are not alone. The extreme emotionality they are so ashamed of experiencing is shared by literally every other person on the program. They thought it was just their dark, not very well kept, secret.
Living life to the full requires seeing it as a whole. The Four Quarters offers a simple beat to better dance through what poet Mary Oliver called “ your one wild and precious life.”
What Quarter are you in? And does framing it as one of four steps on the road change anything to the ride?
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