There are three dominant theories about what kind of person you are likely to become as you age. Will you shut down and fade away, stay active, or something in between?

The average American today will live 30 years longer than if they were around a century ago. That’s a big difference. Looking back to the earlier generations of your family, most people had only a few years after they stopped working before they passed away.

Your kinfolk years ago didn’t have to think about what to do with themselves in retirement, because few people had many retirement years to fill. Even less than a century ago, look at 1935, the year the Social Security program began. The average life expectancy then was only 61 years. Today, life expectancy is around 80, slightly less for men and slightly more for women. That number can be misunderstood, however. It doesn’t mean that when you turn 65, you probably have only 15 years, taking you to 80. In fact, you probably have more because the overall life expectancy includes everyone who dies at a relatively young age. So, if you make it to 65, you are actually likely to keep going longer than the overall average. A 65 year old can anticipate more than another 20 years.

What will your life be like during this later season? This merits serious thought since what you expect can have a strong influence on what you become. There are three primary theories about what happens with people as the age.

The study of aging is a relatively recent area of research. The first widely-recognized theory came from Elaine Cumming and William Earl Henry in their book Growing Old published in 1961. They espoused Disengagement Theory. The idea is that it is normal and acceptable for people to withdraw from society when they are old. As the authors put it, “aging is an inevitable, mutual withdrawal or disengagement, resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to.” Is that your inevitable future? That theory has many detractors. It is not a popular view among sociologists these days. Are there alternative theories? Yes. There are two other leading concepts about aging.

Activity Theory asserts that staying active and engaged with life is the key to satisfaction in old age. This theory is just about the polar opposite from Disengagement Theory. Activity Theory proposes that the way to enjoy life is to keep developing new interests and relationships to replace those that diminish or go away over the years.

Continuity Theory holds that most of what you are lasts throughout your lifetime. If you had an outgoing personality at age 25, you’ll probably still be the life of the party when you are 75. You maintain your personality traits, tastes, and preferences throughout life.
As you might guess, there are many other factors that can shape your life as the years progress. In a general sense, however, the three theories help you see the options you have for the general thrust of your life. What do you expect? What path will you take? Your three basic options are:

  • disengage, withdraw from the rest of society as you age
  • be pretty much the person you’ve always been; have continuity
  • or stay active to the extent you are able, both intellectually and physically