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Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot


Home > Learning and Development > Growing older, getting bolder: A new look at learning after 50

Growing older, getting bolder: A new look at learning after 50
HGSE Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

More than 75 million people, a quarter of the U.S. population, are between the ages of 50 and 75. Demographers call this life stage “neither young nor old”; HGSE Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls it a new developmental period. In her new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 years after 50, Lawrence-Lightfoot challenges assumptions about aging and offers fresh perspectives on the dynamic learning that can occur during this period of life.

At the age of 64, situated within her own “Third Chapter,” HGSE Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot was moved to embark on her ninth book by the “confessional moments” she frequently encountered in both professional and social situations. As she recounted for Usable Knowledge, “I would run into people and they would tell me, whispering almost, what they were really interested in, what they were passionate about—whether it was learning flamenco guitar, or doing salsa dancing, or learning figure skating, or running the marathon—or deciding to go to South Africa to participate in the freedom struggle or tutoring kids in Roxbury. There was something exciting that was really engaging them in new ways.”

As adults over 50 discover these new interests and passions, or recover old ones, Lawrence-Lightfoot realized they would face new learning challenges. She became intrigued by two questions: what do people in this generation feel compelled to learn, and how do they go about it?

In pursuit of the answers, Lawrence-Lightfoot travelled the country, interviewing 40 men and women who were redefining themselves as new learners. Through the lenses of Erikson's developmental stages, life-span theory, and her own signature approach called portraiture, a methodology “as provocative and seductive as narrative, and as rigorous and systematic as empirical research,” she set out to compile a nuanced look at the unique features of learning between ages 50 and 75.

Unlearning to learn

One theme of the book is that learning within the Third Chapter is different, even contrary, to the way learning traditionally takes place in schools. “Competition, speed, the single pursuit of achievement, masking failure,” Lawrence-Lightfoot explains, “are things we all learn to do in school. The learning and productivity we have in our Third Chapter has to do with patience, with collaboration, with restraint and incrementalism.”

Third Chapter learners go through four stages when they cross the boundaries into new learning, Lawrence-Lightfoot discovered. First, they are deeply curious about the subject they have chosen to study. Next, they let go of their fear of failure, and their fear of making a fool of themselves. Then they display a willingness to be vulnerable, and finally, they develop empathy and put themselves in the place of those who will become their teachers—often people from different backgrounds, cultures, geographies, and generations.

For example, while schools typically teach children to fear and avoid failure, Third Chapter learners often learn through failing and diagnosing the causes. Lawrence-Lightfoot tells stories of people who after long, successful careers take tentative, courageous steps into uncharted adventures—such as painting, sculpting, jazz piano playing—where failure is public, and growth requires the ability to seek and appreciate criticism of one's work.

For the most part, school does not anticipate or help students prepare for learning throughout the lifespan. What is ultimately needed, Lawrence-Lightfoot says, is a new kind of pedagogy that anticipates life-long learning and takes a longer view of the capacities needed to be creative and productive at later stages. Rather than a “vertical climb up the next rung of the education ladder,” Lawrence-Lightfoot believes a richer curriculum would challenge us to “think more broadly and more deeply about how people can continue to be learners for the rest of their lives—and how we can nourish curiosity, how we can nourish passion.” One suggestion: invite older adults into school classrooms to serve as tutors, as mentors, as “provocateurs,” and as listeners and learners.

Looking back and giving forward

Something unique happens in the Third Chapter, making members of this generation more generous with their time and wisdom and eager to bridge connections. “For the first time we are not as concerned about making it on our own up the ladder of success or making a mark. Instead, we are more concerned about giving to the next generations, and leaving an imprint, a legacy. I call that ‘giving forward’ because we are also interested in learning from younger generations what it is that we can do best to contribute.”

To illustrate the impulse for collaboration and mutual learning, Lawrence-Lightfoot shares a personal anecdote. While canvassing for Obama in New Hampshire during the last election, she found herself following the authoritative and strategic lead of 24 and 25 year-olds; she was moved by their purpose and passion, and by the ways they became the effective teachers of the older adults in their charge.

This kind of bridging of the generations, she says, is crucial to the education of both. It is essential to “recognize the wisdom that people in the Third Chapter bring—their resilience, their wisdom, their patience, their skills—and what it is that people in their first adult chapter might offer—their cultural currency, their comfort with new ideas, their technological skills, their impatience and ambitiousness. We need to be in conversation with each other and know each other's experiences and stories. That is in part what the book is about.”


The developmental period of the Third Chapter is filled with unique tensions and paradoxes. Lawrence-Lightfoot elaborates: “As we move through the Third Chapter we experience both loss and liberation. There is loss of status, of the familiar, of the places where we feel comfortable and know what we are doing—and there is liberation from the claustrophobia of all this, from the repetitiveness and routine, and the opportunity to do something adventurous and new and risk-taking and playful.

“We have so much to bring to the table. We're patient and we have learned restraint. We understand the slow pace of change. On the other hand, there is this sense of urgency, the sense of time running out, and there is still so much we want to experience. We feel the strength of our experience and yet we know that we are so much more vulnerable in terms of our health and our bodies. Part of the challenge of the Third Chapter is managing that tension, that dynamic.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot's books have been very public works that speak to broad and diverse audiences. Her hope for The Third Chapter, which she anticipates will reach an even wider audience, is that it will “provoke people to think differently about their lives, the conversations they have, the stories they compose, the destinies they chart.” Her book also speaks to younger generations who should not be anticipating “a period of ascendancy and adventure in their first two chapters followed by inevitable decline in their third.” The book provides a new narrative of this later developmental period, positioning it as a time of reinvention, of adventures, and of continued learning.

By Martha Ferede, HGSE doctoral student in Higher Education

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, is published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009.

Published: January 2009

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College