The Paula Gordon Show
Choosing Change

Gail Sheehy

      . . . is author of the internationally acclaimed book, Passages. In addition, she has written 12 others, including The Silent Passage, which brought menopause into polite society.  Her most recent is Understanding Men's Passages. Ms. Sheehy is also a political journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. She and her husband, editor-publisher-teacher Clay Felker, live in California and New York.

Excerpts3:27 secs

      The new frontier for humans is life itself, according to Gail Sheehy. With humans living dramatically longer lives, Sheehy's widely recognized ideas about "passages" take on powerful new importance.

      We're in the awkward position of having to invent our second and even third adulthoods, according to Sheehy. Great numbers of humans have never lived so long before. In fact, in the last century, we added 30 years to the average person's life expectancy and may well add another 25 or 30 in the next decade. Things have changed so fast that even our parents' experience offers no guidance. But we all remain vulnerable to life's changes. That's the bad news.

      The good news, says Sheehy cheerfully, is that the changes are generally predictable. She's made a career of enumerating them and found that she, too, has had to adapt and learn from a growing body of new research. She is particularly eager for us to begin to focus on mid-life, which gets later and later, led by 74 million Baby Boomers.

      Sheehy has gathered evidence from research that confirms men and women actually age quite differently. For example, brain research is showing that men's and women's brains physically change in midlife. No one yet knows what the implications are that by mid-life, men's brains are less symmetrical, women's brains more so. But we do know that everyone's brain cells deteriorate when not used. Even in our 80s, the cortex of the human brain actually grows, sprouts new neural foliage, and makes new neuronal connections when challenged daily in a highly stimulating environment.

      Sheehy worries about aging men. She urges them to begin preparing for later years in their 30s and 40s. Find your passion early. Prepare to trade "power" for "influence" before someone makes that decision for you. Make men friends. Nurture your marriage or get one you can nurture -- married 45 year old men can expect to live ten years longer than unmarried ones. And learn the skills necessary to achieve the universal definition of true "manliness" -- wisdom and service to the larger community.

      Sheehy's convinced as we get older, the ideal working and living arrangement is for men and women to compliment each others' strengths by midlife and beyond. Aging successfully, she maintains, is a career choice for us all. Study what it takes, prepare yourself and work at it every day. Whether female or male, embrace life's changes and you can learn from them and flourish. Avoid those transitional experiences and you may very well languish or even regress. Know generally what to expect. Then take a deep breath and dive in. This is a frontier worth exploring.

Conversation 1

Gail Sheehy gives Paula Gordon and Bill Russell a sense of the enormity of the changes which come with living dramatically longer lives. She outlines the implications of most people having, in effect, 2 or even 3 adult lives. She notes the significantly different ways men and women respond to change.

Conversation 2

Men in their 40s are getting fired and are not prepared for it, according to Sheehy. She compares this to quite different challenges women face in their 40s and 50s. Sheehy insists men must give extra attention to planning and preparing to redirect their lives in early mid-life. She offers suggestions for finding and building on one's passion and offers examples. She passes on what she learned from experts about men's (more severe) stress responses and how that impacts everyday activities at home and at work.

Conversation 3

In the last century, we've added 30 years to the human life cycle. Sheehy describes breakthroughs that may well add another 25 or 30 in the next decade. She tells why this dramatic increase in longevity represents the new human frontier. She compares the experiences of men and women as they go into uncharted decades of life. She gives examples of why mutual support between couples is vital to a person's well-being, with particular emphasis on men's needs. She compares the experience of women in midlife to that of men, suggesting that the men who do best in their 50s and 60s and 70s are men who don't retire but redirect, championing influence over power.

Conversation 4

Gail Sheehy offers her ideas about real power and manliness. She observes that aging men across cultures become more nurturing and in need of nurturing. Women, by comparison, move psychologically in the opposite direction. Sheehy compares what it means to be 50 years old today and in prior generations. She describes what is essential for a healthy aging brain. She cites research data that shows men's and women's brains changing in dramatic and predictable ways not previously known. She recommends men and women work together to compliment each others' strengths and gives a very personal example. She offers Jimmie Carter and John Glenn as new role models for aging men and suggests what we have to learn from them.

Conversation 5

Sheehy points us to times along our life-cycles when we have the chance to make a developmental leap forward or to drop back and regress. She observes how valuable it is to be forewarned of those relatively predictable events and to use the opportunities to grow and learn. She explains why we can't use our fathers' or mothers' life experiences as cues anymore. Sheehy gives examples of a sense of community emerging among groups of men and women who face similar challenges. She urges men to develop close men friends as well as finding ways to be emotionally closer to their wives. She explains why she believes women are more adept at establishing healthy intimacy and the edge that ability gives women in an information economy.

Conversation 6

Sheehy offers ways for men to become truly wise and useful in spite of cultural handicaps. She describes what she calls the "manopause" men in their mid-50s experience, and offers strategies with which to avoid it. She reminds us that men over 45 who are married can expect to live 10 years longer than men who are not married and suggests why that might be the case. Successful aging for men and women alike, she insists, is a career choice -- you have to prepare for it, do some study, and work at it every day.


Gail Sheehy braved intimidating flying weather to keep her date with us in Atlanta. We are grateful that she did.

The Commerce Club's hospitality was particularly welcome the day we recorded our conversation with Ms. Sheehy -- The Club had electricity when much of Atlanta did not. We thank The Club and its staff on all counts.

Related Links:
Understanding Men's Passages is published by Random House

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