Happinest Podcast

05: Thriving in the Second Half of Life with Robert W. Levenson

Baby Boomers Are Finding a Renaissance in Their Marriage Relationships When the Kids Leave Home: As We Move into Later Life, We Become Better at Understanding Emotions of Others, at Compassion and at Marriage.

Robert W. Levenson is a Berkeley psychology professor and researcher who has been conducting an ongoing study of baby boomers and their parents since 1989. He researches long-term marriages in midlife and beyond, focusing on couples who have stayed together. Bob is happily married, loves music and fine clothing.

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What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Levenson found that this “is not your parent’s empty nest.” The old-school version of marriage was focused on raising children. When the kids left home, many parents thought their purpose had ended, and became “rudderless and lost.”
  • Baby boomers saw marriage as not only serving the needs of their kids, but also meeting their own, as a way to complete and fulfill themselves.
  • With the kids gone, boomers are finding a Renaissance in their marriage relationships and rediscovering why they fell in love in the first place.
  • The women’s movement and an emphasis on self-actualization have brought transformative change. Now empty nester women are launching businesses, writing books, learning to play musical instruments, you name it. They are starting a second chapter.
  • Baby boomers lived lives full of causes and passionate interests. But they were also very involved as parents and “suffered from the illusion of control,” believing they could steer and control their children. They feared for the safety of their children in what appeared to be “an increasingly dangerous society.”
  • Boomers had elevated expectations for marriage in an era when the single breadwinner was replaced by two-career households. Marriages strained and broke in record numbers.
  • The baby boomer cohort is “wrinkle-blind.” They tend to see themselves as thin, fit, full of energy and very different from their parents. They see themselves with “young-tinted” glasses.
  • Long-term couples who are doing best are ones where the partners are quite different from each other. While differences can be quite challenging in a young marriage, over time, having this diversification bolsters a marriage.
  • As we age past 30, we face a process of continuing decline, including with our memories, but our emotions stay intact: We are able to better feel and control our feelings. We become better at understanding emotions of other people in complex social situations. We become better at compassion and more sensitive to our partners. We become better at marriage.
  • Boomers are finding retirement “is not an appealing prospect,” and can trigger a struggle with identity. When they reach 65, they are retiring, “unretiring,” and partially retiring. The meaning of work has changed.
  • If we just “drift,” rather than focusing mindfully as we move into late life, it is unproductive. We have to do some planning with regard to relationships, our life’s work, our passions and interests.
  • We are “wired for good.” Part of later life should involve giving back to our family, our community, our churches. That makes life more meaningful.

Judy Holland with Robert W. Levenson