(WOMENSENEWS)–The Numbers Game

The sheer number of women in their midlife years makes us significantly more influential than women have been in the past. According to U.S. Census data, there were 37 million midlife women in the United States in 1996. By 2011, that number was over 51 million. The current number of middle-aged people in society is unprecedented. Just a few generations ago, only 10 percent of the population survived past 40 (U.S. Census).

That’s a pretty depressing statistic, perhaps, but it underscores how new this whole notion of midlife is. It wasn’t something that was studied; it wasn’t something we thought about too much.

According to Wikipedia, the life expectancy of women is 82 years. What this means for us is many midlife women will be able to live in ways that simply haven’t been available to women in the past.

First, that generous life expectancy offers precious additional years for many women to reinvent their lives; the "bonus decades" as Abigail Trafford calls them. Second, much less social pressure to conform makes it easier for women to choose life paths that would have been frowned upon a few generations ago.

But the group of women profiled in this book (including Women’s eNews Founder and Editor in Chief Rita Henley Jensen) have led and lived through significant social upheaval – working outside of the home, single parenting, medical advances and controversies, increased acceptance of lesbian relationships, the emergence of the women’s movement and increased cultural diversity – all which have broadened the opportunities and the choices midlife women can make today.

Many of my grandmother’s friends (and most in my mother’s generation too) either were homemakers and mothers their entire lives, active in the PTA and civic organizations, in gourmet cooking or square dancing clubs and in their religious communities. Others worked, mostly in typically female occupations like teaching, nursing or secretarial work and then retired to a relatively quiet life of gardening, mahjong, bridge or perhaps a book club. Maybe they traveled a little.

My Grandmother Was Ahead of Her Time

My grandmother was a bit different. Born in 1901, my grandmother worked as an executive secretary from age 18 until she retired at 65.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother went on cruises. She toured Europe. She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, joined the local temple and reestablished her religious roots. Boredom struck. Grandma moved into her apartment and, tired of visiting her grandchildren and great grandchildren, got a job taking care of an "old lady" when she was past 80 herself.

Today, more women are like my grandmother. A coach I know, now in her late ’70s, moved to a new, more vibrant community a few years ago after decades in the same home where she had raised her family. "I love my old friends," she told me, "but I need to talk about more than lip gloss and grandchildren."

My own coach echoes that sentiment; she creates local and national events that allow her to spend more time with like-minded people. Another woman, also past 70, created a salon to bring women together for serious discussions on a variety of current and important topics. Another discovered blogging and now has a thriving social media business.

As the country braces for the huge demographic shift–in 2014 there will be more older people than younger people–this is a good time to examine what this next phase (second adulthood, third act; take your pick of catchy attempts to name the phenomenon) really looks like for women and how best to create a successful agenda for what lies ahead.