Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.
Stress is an isolator. As its intensity increases, it promotes distrust of others and that distrust leads to greater isolation from the essential social networks of family, friends, and colleagues. The inherent loneliness of this isolation also comes with a significant quality of life burden. House, Landis, and Umberson (1988) published a classic review of five prospective studies showing that social isolation is a risk factor for broad-based morbidity and mortality. This is especially troubling news for baby boomers. The polyphasic stress of middle age puts them at increased risk for social isolation and poor outcomes. Finding remedies to address the problem exceeds the scope and resources of clinical medicine. No amount of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication can overcome the fundamental need of middle age adults to learn how to band together in diverse social networks to reduce this threat to quality of life. Simply put, middle age should not be attempted alone.
Social networks serve a critical role in fulfilling the developmental tasks of middle age. They provide emotional scaffolding for the fifty-something growth phase by reducing instability and buffering volatility. Echoing Shakespeare’s adage that “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved,” social networks have the enormous capacity to provide support, comfort, and relief. In addition, they are collaborative “dream teams” for baby boomers providing fresh input, new perspectives, and valuable feedback in the pursuit of second half goals. Once goals are clarified, social networks become a prime resource for human capital. Specialized “swat teams” of friends, peers, or other contacts can be mobilized to foster new business opportunities, address a health crisis, or pursue altruistic callings. Their success is the end product of collaboration, a strategy that can prove difficult for middle age men.
As noted previously, men’s individualistic approach to pursuing goals becomes a deficit in the second half of life. In the United States, suicide rates are highest among men aged 65 years and older, and within this group, the highest for men who are divorced or widowed. Winding up alone either physically or emotionally can be catastrophic to quality of life. Confronting a broad-spectrum upheaval with insufficient social networks can simply be too much leading to irreversible damage to men and their family systems. Offering men reframing strategies to reconsider the benefits of utilizing social networks is vital for preserving quality of life for themselves and those who are counting on them.
Social networks serve another crucial function by providing the architecture for a goal unique to middle age: generativity. Eric Erikson, a pioneer in developmental psychology field, defines generativity as an adult’s ability to look outside him or herself and care for others, an individual’s concern for the generations to come. In the middle-adult years, Erikson wrote, a person may come to realize that “I am what survives me.” Social networks allow individuals to begin to discover what they want to survive them. Many times the simple experience of interacting in network communities reveals for the first time the magnitude of reaching beyond self-interest. The well being of society depends on middle age adults’ contributions to those who will follow them.
Boomers need to remember that the search for generativity is impacting their entire generation, a psychological call to arms to make the second half to matter. Social networks provide a critical forum to help accomplish this and other goals. The developmental disruption of middle age may not be pleasant but it does shed new light on the role and potential of social networks. For baby boomers it is deja vu to what occurred to their generation in the 1960s, finding themselves once again between an old system that is no longer working and the new system that is still in development. The challenge is how to assess the current inventory of social networks and then use the analysis to improve their quality and quantity. One resource is The Network Cultivator™.
The Network Cultivator™ assesses the quality and diversity of social networks from a historical, integral, and functional perspective. It is an effective tool for middle age adults to better understand the dynamics of their social networks and how they change in quality and purpose over time. The Network Cultivator™ is in part a historical tally of which communities have proven beneficial over time and why. It also identifies which ones have either failed or seemed trapped in chronic dysfunction. The Network Cultivator™ assesses, organizes, and prioritizes the entire social network system. The results are captured in a global summary that is used to rebalance the social network sector of The Quality of Life Portfolio™. Rebalancing includes addressing the human ecology issues that are undermining the developmental mission.
A primary benefit of The Network Cultivator™ is its capacity to reframe dysfunctional networks. This is a critical step for family systems, which are complex, slow to change, and impact the quality of life for middle age adults. There is also an understandable tendency to see dysfunctional family sectors as predestined, a perspective that assumes individual members are simply “stuck” with the way things are. The Network Cultivator™ can alter this bias by providing a protocol to test assumptions that individuals have about their family system. It effectively identifies strategies that make them incapable of moving beyond chronic conflict and pessimism. It then provides a way to recast these strategies into a more effective format. The reframing of dysfunctional sectors alone can reduce the volatility of this essential sector by helping middle age adults modify their perspective and expectations. This creates a more realistic view of the family system and what individual members can or cannot control. It also highlights the inherent pitfalls and limitations of family systems reinforcing the fundamental need to seek outside communities to insure a more balanced inventory of network resources.
The Network Cultivator™ is an ideal tool to define the theme and structure of new social networks. The global summary maps out quality sectors that are at high risk for instability due to poor relationship ecology. It also uses historical success to emphasize the community structure that has been beneficial in the past. With this information, middle age adults can begin to seek out or create highly individualized affinity groups. Whether to shore up exhaustion from working with aging parents or creating an ad hoc support group for coping with a devastating diagnosis, The Network Cultivator™ provides baby boomers tools for distributive decision making that intensely involves social networks in filtering choices, vetting decisions, and monitoring progress.
New network communities are a source of great hope for middle age adults. They represent a new beginning, a chance to join forces with kindred spirits who have similar needs, issues, or interests. As important, their form and content are not bound by what has occurred in the first half of life. The second half world operates with a unique intensity and content that only the experience of being middle age can comprehend. The scope and depth of the upheaval argues for a more open-minded approach to reinvention, to risk moving into uncharted waters to find or create new networks that could to be the deciding factor in preserving quality of life.
Reinvention for middle age adults involves the past as much as it does the future. It is not surprising that desires and dreams from youth resurface amid the crisis of middle age. Passions that have been put on the shelf for years suddenly surface and insist on reconsideration. This renaissance of unfulfilled dreams carries enormous emotional sway for reframing middle age goals. In the same manner it provides a focal point for discovering or creating new social networks. It is a transformational insight that turns a perceived setback of being older into an opportunity to finally pursue what you really wanted in the first place. Learning Greek while studying ancient history on location in Athens with a group of like-mind peers is no longer out of the question. So is a scratch start to learn golf, piano, salsa dancing, or a foreign language. It also includes forays into new business venture, going back to college, joining humanitarian missions, remodeling a house, or upgrading a marriage. Once freed up to leverage middle age as a cause for reinvention, baby boomers can mobilize a vast array of skills, choices, and technologies to self-organize in dramatic new and exciting ways.