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Author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy says midlife is an opportunity, not a crisis

Chip Conley is a former executive with Airbnb, author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy.
Chip Conley
Chip Conley is a former executive with Airbnb, author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy.

Life expectancy has increased by six years across the world between 2000 and 2019 according to the World Health Organization. And as more people are living longer, they are exploring what that latter part of their lives could look like – often dubbed “the Third Act.”

Chip Conley created the Modern Elder Academy to try and help people figure this out. Conley was a strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb and has given several TED talks on this topic. He’s also the author of “Learning to Love Midlife.” The academy is designed to reframing the concept of aging and to help adults find renewed purpose and possibility in midlife. He has hosted these workshops online and in Baja, Mexico, but he is opening a Santa Fe location in March. Conley told KUNM that midlife is often associated with crisis, but it’s actually more like a chrysalis – a time of transformation.

CHIP CONLEY: The social science research on this is pretty clear that the U curve of happiness bottoms out around 45 to 50. And I happened to lose five male friends aged 42 to 52, to suicide during the Great Recession. And so to me, it's very personal. But it's also sociological. You can see that actually people get happier in their 50s, their 60s or 70s. A lot of what's going on in the core of midlife is the spinning plates phenomena and a lot of things happening at once. And it's part of that transition, part of that chrysalis. So we were surprised that there really wasn't a place in the world that was dedicated to helping people repurpose and reimagine themselves in midlife. And so that's why we created MEA the Modern Elder Academy,

KUNM: You talk about the word “middle essence.” What is that?

CONLEY: So “adolescence” as a word didn't exist until 1904. And then once it existed, all of a sudden, we had child labor laws, we had public junior high schools and high schools. Prior to that, if you hit puberty, you were an adult. So there's a new word that's been coined in gerontology called “middle essence.” And it's when you're going through hormonal, emotional, physical and identity transitions, often in the middle of your life, and they're all very normal. But we don't really have much in the way of schools, tools, rituals, or rites of passage, to help people through menopause, or empty nest, or parents passing away or divorce, or changing your career or having a little spiritual awakening. And these are all things that actually are happening during the middle of our lives.

KUNM: Why is this conversation important right now.


CONLEY: So if we look globally, longevity is way beyond what it was 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, quite frankly, it's the middle of our life that's gotten extended, and yet in a world where in many cases -- not in Washington, but in companies -- power is moving younger, we really need some opportunities to help people in midlife understand how to make sense of themselves, how to navigate these transitions, how to cultivate purpose, and how to own their own wisdom. The raw material of wisdom is the life lessons we've had. Just because you've had life lessons doesn't mean you're wise. You need to know how to actually make sense of them. I do believe we're in an era where a new generational compact is needed, especially in the workplace with five generations in the workplace. Lastly, by the year 2025, the US Department of Labor shows that the average American will have a younger boss. So how do we actually make sense of that?

KUNM: What are we missing by not taking full advantage of this part of life,

CONLEY: When we have people feeling irrelevant and invisible in their 50s, we are not taking advantage of the wisdom that they've developed. Nor are we giving them a sense that, gosh, maybe they could work into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And that would be good for society. Quite frankly, from a financial perspective, they're less reliant upon the government or their retirement funds to take care of themselves. But it really does require us to have a rethinking around the generational warfare that we tend to get into. So I joined Airbnb at 52. The average age in the company was 26. And they started calling me the modern elder. And I didn't like that a whole lot. I thought they were making fun of my age. And then they said, “Chip, a modern elder is someone who's as curious as they are wise.” Helping people to feel like they can be relevant and constantly learning something new, is very correlated with living a long, happy, healthy life.

KUNM: There is a lot of resentment among younger workers who, frankly, are at a disadvantage economically than many of their older colleagues with things like the housing prices, heavy student loan debt and inflation. And a lot of them are eager to change things and they want other generations to kind of get out of the way. Where do you see your work in that tension?

CONLEY: I think the fact that we're going to see more and more millennials, as the bosses of Boomers and Gen Xers is a good thing. But that doesn't mean that the older people don't have a value there. They don't have a value if they're not willing to be curious, or they're not willing to learn something new, or they're living based upon a premise that I've paid my dues. You got to pay your dues. I really deeply believe that we all have something to learn from each other.

KUNM: You do in person workshops and online workshops. Some of these are a little pricey. So how can regular folks access some of the things you're doing.

CONLEY: The majority who've come have been on some form of financial aid. I'll never forget a workshop early on in our first year in 2018. There was a black social worker from Atlanta. She was in her early 60s. She had a lot of purpose, but not a lot of money. And she was on a full scholarship. And then we had a 46-year-old investment banker, a white guy, who was retired from New York City, and he had a lot of money but no purpose. And every day the two of them would go walking on the beach, and they learned from each other because wisdom is not taught, it's shared. And so the idea of having a diverse cohort, it makes for a more robust experience.


Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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