by Dan Neuharth Ph.D., MFT
How to accept aging and embrace opportunities in later life.
- Between the early 60s and mid-70s, some people may experience a developmental life transition.
- This transition can bring strong feelings of regret, resentment, disillusionment, and grief.
- Embracing change, adopting a growth mindset, and connecting with others can help navigate this period.
The “midlife crisis,” which can occur between our late 30s to mid-50s, is well-researched (though not universally agreed upon). There is also anecdotal evidence of a “quarter-life crisis” facing some in their mid-20s to early 30s.
Now, with the U.S. population over 65 projected to increase 50% in the next 15 years, and with over-60 becoming the fastest-growing age group worldwide, attention is being paid to whether a “three-quarter-life crisis” awaits some of us as we reach our early 60s into our mid-70s.
The concepts of these three crises — or transitions, as many researchers prefer to term them — draw from stage theories of adult development of Erikson, Levinson, and others. Stage theories posit that we move through predictable phases of cognitive, social, and physical development which can stimulate us to adjust our life structure and goals, sometimes with turmoil and upheaval.
Life transitions can arrive without warning and feel unnerving. For some, reaching the three-quarter mark of life expectancy can be associated with increased distress.
For example, one 2020 survey of more than 5,000 Australians found that a third had experienced a three-quarter-life transition. They reported feeling remorse, boredom, discouragement, and they questioned their legacies.
This transition may feel like a crisis when it includes pervasive feelings of:
- Pessimism about the future
- Resentment, irritability, or bitterness
- Uncertainty about one’s priorities
- Emptiness, grief, or loneliness
The challenges of a three-quarter-life crisis differ from those of midlife and quarter-life transitions.
In a midlife transition, key challenges may include:
- Facing a dawning sense of mortality as we reach a halfway point
- Questioning the dreams and choices that have guided our lives to the midpoint
- Bewilderment at realizing we may have labored under illusions about life, others, and ourselves
- Feeling a loss of youth
In a quarter-life transition, central issues can include:
- Feeling left behind in comparison with peers
- Difficulty making career, relationship, and other life decisions
- Anxiety, tension, and uncertainty about one’s identity
- Lack of clarity about what really matters in life
- Feeling aimless or lacking motivation
- Difficulty transitioning from one’s family of origin to an independent life structure
Unique factors spark a three-quarter-life transition. By our early 60s, concerns about health, safety, independence, and isolation can arise. These may feel more pressing than the questions of identity, purpose, or mortality which are characteristic of earlier life transitions.
We face retirement and an empty nest. We may need to learn to live with less. Our parents may have passed on or be in steep decline. Changes in cognition, hormones, appearance, and fitness, once subtle, seem to accelerate. As the torch passes to younger generations, older adults may feel less visible or held in less regard.
Our peers increasingly face health challenges. Prior to age 40, fewer than 4 in 10 people have a serious health condition. By age 60, three-quarters of us face at least one serious health challenge. By the mid-70s, more than four out of five will have one or more serious health conditions.
While these shifts can be challenging, life after 65 also brings opportunities.
By several measures, life satisfaction and subjective well-being increase through our 60s well into our 80s, reaching levels higher than in our 40s. We tend to become more resilient. By age 80, a higher percentage of people report feeling prepared for the inevitability of death than at any time earlier in life, according to a 2022 survey by AARP and National Geographic.
Many pass through the 60s and 70s embracing and accepting the changes of aging. In the study cited earlier of Australian seniors, two-thirds of those who reported having a three-quarter-life crisis said it ultimately turned out to be a healthy process.
Life transitions tend to have three phases:
- An initial period of loss. External events or internal processes can plunge us into recognizing that what we have taken for granted may be changing or vanishing for good. This can initially spark unease, denial, and a reluctance to change.
- A middle period of disorientation. Having lost our bearings, we may seek distractions, withdraw, or act impulsively. In time, however, this turmoil can provide an impetus for newfound self-exploration.
- A final period of consolidation and new beginnings. We come to accept what we have lost and focus more on who we want to become.
This model can be useful to those facing a three-quarter-life crisis. If you are experiencing some of the seven signs listed above, it may help to view these signs as messages from within. It may be that a deeper, wiser part of you is trying to get your attention.
In any transition, we have the opportunity to move beyond what we have outgrown. If we do so, our lives can continue evolving. To the extent we fail to adapt, we may be constrained by a life structure that no longer fits us.
For those in their 60s and 70s, adapting may include:
- Reaching out. Talk to trusted friends. Seek therapy. Search for support groups for seniors facing transitions. Now is not the time to go it alone.
- Engaging with what is changing. Keep a journal. Read. Watch videos or listen to podcasts about life transitions, re-inventing yourself, coping with change, or aging positively.
- Adopting a growth mindset. Ask yourself what really matters. How do you want to spend your time? What feels like a life well-lived? Focus on quality experiences, not quantity.
- Embracing change and novelty.
Of course, debilitating emptiness, regret, loneliness, and apathy may signal depression, not just a life transition. Depression is best treated actively with psychotherapy, medication, and other forms of support.
To date, there is primarily anecdotal evidence of a three-quarter-life crisis. This area offers fertile ground for new research, particularly given the increasing number of people reaching this age.