Rethinking the 4-Stage Life Model

George Full Sketch


Remember the four-stage life model?

1. Childhood

2. Education

3. Work and Family

4. Retirement

It seemed to work so well for our parents and grandparents.  But our world is very different from theirs.  So is this model obsolete?

For many, if not most of us, I believe the answer is a resounding YES.


Why?  Let me count some of the ways.

  1. Many of us are living far longer than our parents’ generation, and with those additional years (even decades) our needs and expectations will be different than in generations past.   Will you live longer and healthier than your parents?
  2. The famous financial planning three-legged stool may require a fourth leg.  The first leg, the planned benefit retirement with pensions, is growing scarce.  The second, Social Security,  may be at risk, at least in the form it is now.  The third, retirement savings, is, in the majority of households, grossly insufficient.  Many people will need extended, if smaller, income streams from some type of work for pay to bring some stability to the weakened legs of the stool.   Do/will you have all three legs in place and absolutely assured?   How long will you have to work for pay at what you are doing now?  Might you need or want additional income stream(s)?
  3. The elimination of entire segments of jobs, companies, and industries puts income security at risk.  What we studied in college and learned in the jobs we later held are no longer a guarantee of employability in the future.  How solid is the match between your skills/expertise and the emerging, in-demand jobs/gigs in today’s world of work for pay?   What have you done to update your employability and skill set?
  4. Many of our institutions—marriage, churches, healthcare systems, employee/employer partnerships, governments—have transformed, and in so doing weakened traditional safety nets.  With later-in-life divorces on the rise, the perceived value of churchgoing on the wane, healthcare costs rising, employers showing little loyalty to employees and government programs inadequate, that support has weakened. Can anyone or any institution be more responsible for you than you are?  Upon which institutions can you depend for your future?

The alternative

If the four-stage life model is outmoded, what should take its place?

I propose a six-stage model:

1. Childhood

2. Work/Education

3. Work/Family

4. Work/Extended Mid Life

5. Work/Leisure, and

6. Needs Help Elderly

What?  No retirement?   How unfair!   Well, not really.    Let’s get real here, one stage at a time.

Childhood.  Childhood used to be simple to identify.  Children were young and shorter and less mature.  And with years and height and experience, they grew out of it.  And left home.  Now it’s much more complicated.  Kids move out and often move back in, not always alone.   Employment problems, financial difficulty, marital problems, and saving money for education are only a few contributing factors.  While these kids may also be grownups, and living with parents on an extended basis prolongs the parent/kid bond, the jury is still out on the long-term impact on both the adult children and the aging parents.  For purposes of this blog I would like to define children as those dependent upon their parents for financial support, judgment and critical thinking, and guidance about crucial life choices.

Work/Education.  At some point in high school or before/during college, some experience of the world can make a huge contribution to the quality of learning and depth of maturity.  Malia Obama is going to take a “gap year” before going to Harvard as a freshman.   Gap year doesn’t mean empty time or a traditional job.  It means the space for transformative learning between academics-dominated periods of time.   Ms. Obama is not average, I admit, but she isn’t non-representative either.  My own 17-year-old granddaughter, Laura, will be living with my wife Linda and me this summer (a gap summer!) between her junior and senior years of high school.  She will be volunteering 2 days a week at a marine biology center and interning 3 days a week at a regional Women’s Resource Center.

In my day, work and education were considered separate realms.  Today, with technologies and integrated learning, I think they do and must overlap.

Work/Family.  Eventually Laura will complete college, find one or more good fits in the work for pay department (not necessarily a job), and join/form one or more bonded groups.   Some will be genetically connected and some won’t.   All may form a part of extended family.

Work/Extended Midlife.  If we’re going to live longer and healthier, we have a choice to make.  Do we want to add those years to our elderly period or would we like to add them to our midlife?  I vote for midlife.  Why?  Because the period between 50 and elderly can be the most rewarding of our lives.  We can do some of the most significant, creative, meaningful things in our lives at this time.  And we may want to consider a kind gap year for ourselves—not between high school and college or college and graduate school, but between careers.

Work/Leisure.  We may not be slowing down as we age, but there will be a shift in the balance between work (freelancing, entrepreneurial efforts, jobs) and leisure (volunteering, individual creative projects, athletics, hobbies, travel).  Certainly not a dead stop, as in one day fully employed, next day fully retired.   We’ll still be driven by the need for an income stream, extended belonging (which we often find at our place of work) and ongoing intellectual stimulation.

Needs Help/Older.  We may not be the first to realize we’ve reached the point where we need help in one or more aspects of our lives.  Regardless, denial may arise.  So may reality.  I think it’s a skill, certainly a graceful skill, to listen well to someone who thinks we need help and then make a clean, informed decision about it.  It’s an equally graceful skill to notice something about ourselves and ask for help.

The distribution of our lives over a longer time frame will require reorienting ourselves to altered realities and needs.  It will also mean surrendering models that are obsolete, and that can take tenacity and courage.

What are you doing in anticipation of your own future life?


4 responses to “Rethinking the 4-Stage Life Model”

  1. Cheryl says:

    In answer to the question of how I am trying for my post 60work period, I am keeping up on my Microsoft Office skills and continuing to look at job postings and even applying for a few.

    I am becoming familiar with what kind of skills employers would consider valuable, for example familiarity with GIS. I will continue to ask questions and learn something new each day.

    Thank you George for waking us up to the new reality!

  2. Jari Searns says:

    George, my friend, you are a wise man! This was a terrific piece and really put-in-place so many of the thoughts, considerations, plans made and plans abandoned that I have been grappling with since retiring last Spring…’s been an enlightening learning experience…better than most college course I’ve taken. That “Work/Extended Midlife” I now recognize needs to be a critical part of all of our lives given how very much society has and continues to change. We all need to keep “stretching” and growing and we need to take off the blinders about what retirement is all about….

    • George Schofield says:

      To the degree we have some additional years of life, most of us are in extreme danger of unthinkingly adding them onto the end of our lives A longer Can’t Any More. My recommendation is to consciously add them onto the middle – even if the math doesn’t exactly work – to create a longer life of satisfaction. A longer Still Can And It Feels Great. I’ve really admired how much you have taken on in the exploration of your own unretirement. If you hadn’t had the determination and courage to unretire despite pressure not to do so, you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be the active pioneer you are now. George.

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