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Reflections on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya

DanielMiller2 February 2018

Our team is certainly blessed, in that just as we set out on our study of midlife, a joyous and profound book is published on exactly this subject: Reflections on Midlife: A philosophical Guide by the philosopher Kieran Setiya. I can’t imagine a better treatment by a philosopher of topics ranging from whether there is a mid-life crisis, how to be reconciled to the lives we haven’t and won’t live, the fear of death, or the issues of regret, missing out and retrospection. It’s a clear read and acts a collection point for some of the `best bits’ on this topic from sources ranging from Aristotle, through Schopenhauer to Simone de Beauvoir. It is also a kind of practice guide for the actually middle-aged (such as myself) on how to live in the present, how to value activities in their own right and not just as projects, and why the path to happiness is always through others. As it happens there were also substantial sections whose aspirations I do not share, such as his concluding sections on Buddhism and mindfulness, which to me still speaks to an orientation to the self and the body. I would prefer to watch paint dry than to contemplate my own breathing, and generally I prefer a more social and ethical orientation to resolving these dilemmas.

Creative Commons Gregg Vaughn

This book takes nothing away from our task as anthropologists. Setiya’s volume is an exercise in thinking about how other people might think about midlife, and much of it is about contemplation. But as I note in my own recent book The Comfort of People, the hospice patients I worked with don’t do much of this contemplation about the meaning and purpose of life. They valorise the life they have actually lived through continuities of practice, such as watching TV and keeping up with family relationships. We have a perhaps harder task in extrapolating our insights on how people relate to midlife from our interrogation and interpretation of such embedded practices within everyday life. And in our case, we will do this comparatively, considering the difference in such practices around the world. Anthropology is not a handmaiden to philosophy – it is trying to achieve rather different goals, but I feel equally important ones. Still I suspect there are going to be quite a few of my informants to whom I might end up recommending Setiya’s book, simply for the good I think it can do in understanding one’s life and in the pleasure of just reading a well crafted book.

Retirement or Transition? – By Pauline Garvey

ShireenWalton3 January 2018

The Third Act Conference, Nov 9th 2017

The Marker Hotel, Grand Canal Square, Dublin 2.

Recently an article ran in The Irish Times stating that most children born today will live to see their 100th birthday. To consider the implications of this, a conference called the Third Act was held in Dublin earlier this month that was dedicated to changing ideas of middle age. Taking the metaphor of a play, the conference speakers suggested that a person’s first act is about dependency on family members. The second act is about leaving home and leading an independent life, while the third act is about transitioning to a more fulfilling life. Conference organiser Dr Edward Kelly described this greater longevity as an exciting opportunity but also warned that “Irish society had been slow to adapt to the increased life expectancy and an ageing population” (D’arcy 09/11/17). For the first time in history, reaching the age of 50 marks the midpoint of our lives, and instead of a steady decline people can view this time as holding unique and exciting possibilities. Replacing retirement and ‘checking out’, people are now moving on to a new level, Kelly insisted. This is not the first conference dedicated to this theme in Dublin, and previous events prompted media reports focusing on pension provision or the ‘pensions time bomb’ in Ireland, the role of financial resources in making the most out of retirement, and more pessimistically the headline quote by popular broadcaster Gay Byrne that ‘when you’re old, your old’ (Holmquist 25/04/15).

The third act corresponds to Daniel Miller’s ‘second life’ in this blog. Whichever term you use, both reflect a realisation that middle age holds potential for a new vision of later life. Kelly goes so far as to question if the term ‘retirement’ should be replaced with ‘transition’, whereby people try new things, take up new professions or fulfil long-held wishes. And although the examples reported in the conference tended to focus on high-flyers, they don’t need to be grandiose. What is clear is that the landscape of possibilities for a second life is still relatively uncharted. Is the idea of a second life common to people approaching retirement? And how does technology impact or assist in these initiatives? These questions lie at the core of my research, but instead of relying on keynote speakers or ‘influencers’ who were recruited to speak at the conference, I am interested in the opinions of ordinary individuals who fit this age profile, and who may have their own ideas about how to spend their coming decades. From February 2018, I will be exploring these questions in depth.

– Pauline Garvey

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D’arcy, Ciarán, ‘Most children will live to 100, conference hears’, The Irish Times 09/11/17, available online: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/most-children-born-now-will-live-to-100-forum-told-1.3286066

Holmquist, Kate  ’Gay Byrne: ‘When you’re old, you’re old’: A recent conference in Dublin explored the ‘end of retirement’ – but is the ‘third act’ a concept only for the wealthy?’ The Irish Times 25/04/15, available online: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/gay-byrne-when-you-re-old-you-re-old-1.2188114

 

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