Redesigning Woman

I derive a Marie Kondo-esque joy from January. It’s like a clean slate. The year is wide open with possibility. And the days are once again getting longer. Yet the start of 2020 came with an unexpected dose of anxiety for me. I reasoned that this must be due to the beginning of a new decade. The ten year challenge that went viral towards the end of 2019 made me reflect not just upon the past year, but the past ten years, and I was concerned that I had not accomplished as much as I had expected I would. Where would I find myself at the end of this decade? The anxiety likely also arose from the fact that I am reaching a mid-point age on my birthday this year, and again I worried about how quickly time passes and how much longer I would be allowed to stay on my current path as a traveler.

As I went back and forth between conventional and aspirational goals for the year, I couldn’t stop thinking about an article I read just before the holidays. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled “We Need A Major Redesign of Life,” Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, discusses outdated social frameworks that no longer match up with our longer life expectancies. She writes, “…it would be a mistake to replace the old rigid model of life – education first, then family and work, and finally retirement – with a new model just as rigid. Instead, there should be many different routes, interweaving leisure, work, education and family throughout life, taking people from birth to death with places to stop, rest, change courses and repeat steps along the way. Old age alone wouldn’t last longer; rather, youth and middle age would expand, too.” When I read her piece, I felt a wave of relief come over me. Or rather, a sense of validation. That there was nothing abnormal about wanting to change my path and travel in my forties.

Convention holds that you roam, travel, and explore in your twenties. You settle down, get married, have kids, and focus on your career in your thirties. You continue to raise your children and work in your forties and fifties. You get to travel again in your sixties and seventies, once you retire. Except, I didn’t start down that path. I wish I had spent my twenties traveling, but I began working right after college and was contributing to my 401k by twenty-three. I went on some fun trips during my allotted vacation time, but travel was not my lifestyle. It wasn’t until I was almost forty when I questioned what I was doing with my life. I had been a good student, following the metaphorical yellow brick road as instructed, making friends along the way, and assuming that my existential questions would be answered once I reached the Emerald City. Yet the revelation that came from pulling the curtain back was that I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life, I didn’t want what my friends wanted, and that, actually, there are so many places to be other than home. The one thing I enjoyed doing more than anything else was traveling. And with no spouse or child to worry about, I could certainly be traveling more.

So, I made changes in my life in order to afford more travel. Then I saved up enough money to take a year-long sabbatical, not just traveling but also taking courses and learning new things. Although, I didn’t call it a sabbatical in the beginning. I learned to call it that only after people, usually my age and older, asked more questions than I could answer. I got tired of defending my choice not to work, even though I had saved and planned for this. I thought that after a year I would return to the traditional workforce. But when the year was up, I wasn’t ready. I decided for just one more year of sabbatical, supplemented by a part-time job. And then another year after that. Until, as the previous decade drew to a close, I wondered, “Is this my lifestyle now? And is that okay?”

As it turns out, I am very much okay with my current lifestyle. Traveling in my forties is awesome. I actually like it better than what I experienced while traveling in my twenties. The insecurities of my youth have long passed, and I have no problem sitting at a restaurant or attending a show by myself. This age also brings enough authority to be taken seriously. I get attention if I need it, even though I have to accept that people will call me Madame and not Miss anymore. But I get anonymity if I want it, too. And I have the energy for a night out but the wisdom to know when I probably shouldn’t.

But I can’t deny there’s a part of me that feels I’m being irresponsible with my happiness. That at this point in my life, I should be focused on saving for retirement. I argue with myself about this, wondering why I can’t travel now and work in my sixties, when maybe I won’t have as much energy for long-distance travel. Is the point of adulthood simply to prepare ourselves for retirement? As Carstensen explains, living longer currently means an extended period of retirement. As a consequence, we need to save money for not just one, but now, three decades of retirement. Effectively, we should be making contributions to our retirement accounts before our first student loan payment is even due. Perhaps instead of purchasing cookies from Girl Scouts, we should be helping these girls set up their IRAs.

I fully support a redesign of life. We live in the age of The Jetsons yet we’re still following systems established by the Flintstones. Carstensen notes that we’ve added thirty years to life expectancy over the past century, yet, “…we tacked them all on at the end. Only old age got longer.” Yet, in 2020, we have a presidential election in the U.S. where the major candidates are in their seventies. Our Hollywood action heroes are in their forties. Both Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston turned fifty last year, technically qualifying them for membership in AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). We may have extended life expectancy in the previous century, but this century is providing countless examples of how to redistribute those years. Why must we retire at seventy? Or rather, why is that the only path? Why can’t we take a mid-life break and travel, then choose to retire at eighty instead? What is the point of all our advances in science, technology, and culture if not to enable increasing self-determination?

Admittedly, part of my motivation in embracing travel in my forties is because my father died in his forties. My reasoning was not based on an extended lifespan, but rather the possibility of an abbreviated one. His early death was not my only reminder that life is short, unfortunately. Yet it wasn’t until I got closer to his final age that it hit me. If not now, then when? The practical part of my brain still protested, “But how will this affect your Social Security lifetime earnings benefits calculations?” I thanked the practical side for its long years of dedicated service and told it I would be in touch later. Because, the fact is, I’m really happy as a traveler. And I know I’m not alone. In the course of my travels, I have met some really cool women who are in my age bracket and older. On a trip to Glasgow, my tour guide was a woman in her sixties who, divorced and with her kids grown, moved from Australia to Scotland for a year. I was so inspired by her. She told me it had been financially challenging, and that she would have to return to her previous job once back in Australia. But she said it was worth it, and that in another five years she hoped to do it again.

I have to come to accept that the only people who understand my decision to be a forty-something solo traveler are my fellow unicorns. But I truly hope for a broader social trend of reconsidering the standardized progression of life. That spending our entire adult lives preparing to be old is a ridiculous way to live. If you are passionate about your career and are satisfied with your choices in life, congratulations. But if you’re not, you should feel empowered to change course, or to take some time and recalculate. You certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to stick it out if that means sticking it out for another thirty years. There are people doing jobs today that didn’t exist when I entered the workforce twenty years ago. It’s okay to pull over and update your map.

Despite my momentary anxiety at the start of the year, my goals for the next decade remain, as always, more travel, and finally paying off my student loans (so close!). It’s possible that eventually I’ll want to have my own home again. It’s likely that eventually I’ll have to increase my IRA contributions. And it’s inevitable that I’ll be working for decades to come. So before I click those ruby slippers, I think I’ll continue to see what else the Emerald City has to offer. It took me long enough to get here.