Boomers: Redefining life, rather than retiring from it

CORRECTION

The Middle Ages

January 21, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

When Susan Crandell left a prestigious editing job to become a freelance writer, her timing seemed perfect. At 52, she and her husband were empty-nesters. She was exhausted by the three-hour daily commute into Manhattan and the demands of presiding over More, a magazine for women in their 40s and 50s. Over her long career in editing, she had amassed many contacts for the stories she planned to pitch.

The first months of long-awaited liberation brought several bad colds -- probably fallout from the stress of such major change. There would be thrilling opportunities, like an assignment to write about gorillas in Uganda, but also scary bouts of self-doubt. She was making a third of the money she had earned. Could she compensate by having three times as much fun?

Crandell has recorded her experiences, along with those of 45 other middle-aged Americans who transformed their lives, in Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife (Warner Wellness, $24.99). These stories reflect a growing number of baby boomers who are finding fulfillment by changing the way they think about careers, families, spirituality and health.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Modern Life section Sunday incorrectly described John D. Gartner's teaching position. He is a part-time assistant professor of medical psychology in the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"I believe this is the first big social revolution of the 21st century," says Crandell, who lives in Cornwall on Hudson, N.Y. "We are basically reinventing middle age, changing the whole definition of it. We're not doing it through protests and marches, but very quietly, life by life. We're doing it through people acquiring a different attitude that illuminates their lives in a different way.

"I'm 55. When my parents were my age, they had retired to Florida. They had done the dream of their generation. We're the most self-involved generation in history, and very youth-oriented, and we're making a different life happen for ourselves.

"You know that old statement: `She's letting herself go?' Well, we're not letting that happen."

Crandell profiles a variety of people she calls "life entrepreneurs." They include a businessman who left a secure job to run a small-town zoo, a property developer who now administers a program to feed the homeless, and a woman who gave birth to her first baby at the age of 51.

Making the leap

But no reinvention is more drastic than that of 54-year-old activist Dana Beyer of Chevy Chase.

Last fall, when Beyer ran for Maryland's House of Delegates, she pushed a progressive platform that included universal health care. Victory would have made her Maryland's first transgender legislator. Beyer, a Democrat, lost, but she earned 5,128 votes. That served as further proof, she says, that she's creating the life she was meant to have.

Raised as a male, Beyer went to college and medical school, married, fathered two children and worked as an eye surgeon for many years. Although she became more lonely and introverted living life as a man, tormented by her life-long desire to be recognized as a woman, her fears of ostracism and of hurting her loved ones prevented her from seeking medical help.

Then, a confluence of events persuaded Beyer to press forward. The terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, underscored the importance of committing to a life of meaning and authenticity. She realized her children were old enough to discuss her medical situation and understand her desire. She had reached a crucial psychological point she calls "the erosion of your resistance."

With the support of her then wife, Beyer began the two-year process of changing gender.

The abandonment she feared did not occur. Instead, friends and family reacted positively to her transformation.

She had changed from a person who was shy, moody and introverted to an optimistic extrovert, smiling and eager to improve the world.

"When I was campaigning, I often hit 100 doors a day and actually enjoyed meeting all those people," she says. "I'm finally coming into my own."

It's in our character

Beyer sees the confidence and grit required to reinvent yourself as part of the boomers' legacy.

"The children of the '60s questioned authority," she says. "We've also allowed ourselves to dream of things that can be done instead of getting bogged down in reasons that they can't. ... I think it's helped create a sense of freedom and possibility for lots of people."

Such stories highlight a fundamental aspect of the American character, according to Baltimore psychologist John D. Gartner. He believes the national appetite for reinvention comes partially from immigrant history and its genetic heritage of risk-taking.

In his book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot Of) Success in America, Gartner observes that the restlessness, individualism and self-confidence shared by people who change their lives are also typical of immigrants "who risk everything to leap into a new world."

He cites sociologist James Jasper, who says immigrants are "unusual" people -- only one in 100 people emigrate -- who tend to be imbued with drive, ambition and talent.

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