Many people begin seriously considering going back to school when they are in their 50's. This is most likely a natural extension of the life events that generally occur at this age: The children have graduated from college, or they soon will; the highest level of professional accomplishment has been reached, and therefore so has earning potential; and thoughts about retirement have likely begun to be considered. As a result, a high percentage of professionals consider what will happen when they retire, how they will spend their time, and what will best suit them in their non-working years.
This is also the time of the most disposable income: At some point in their 50's, many people finally see their children married, and whether they themselves fund the marriage or not, this, too, is the relief of a huge financial responsibility. So at this time of life, everything comes together, and a sense of freedom, both financial and personal, is often achieved. As a result, those things that may have been put off earlier in life suddenly become possibilities again. And continuing an education is often at the top of that list.
Declaration of Independence
Most people spend much of their adult life worried about the various financial burdens that lie ahead. In the earlier years of one's working life, these concerns range from maximizing earning potential to setting up a household to paying for the various expenses that naturally come along with building a family. And whether or not one plans, for example, to pay or help pay for college tuition for one's children, the specter of the eventual arrival of those tuition costs is omnipresent. It is the same with the financial responsibility of a wedding: Gone are the days of the inexpensive affair that will be completely covered by the bride's family; rather, the new status quo is of large gatherings whose ultimate cost is split between both families. And this is not even to mention mortgage payments, clothes for growing children, feeding a family - the list goes on and on.
But by the time one reaches his or her 50's, a certain sense of calm tends to take over. The house is likely paid off, the children are finished school, and they are either married or thinking about it. So with all this extra time and money, what should you do?
Think about returning to school. With all those extra hours and a diminished sense of financial pressure, many people begin pursuing those areas of academic interest that they have had to put aside. If nothing else, it is now possible to pursue them in some capacity without too much fear of the financial consequences of doing so.
It's All About You
When you're younger, it's nearly impossible to justify spending too much time on yourself. The kids need to be driven to baseball or play practice, your spouse feels like you spend too much time at work, and your boss wants to your redouble your efforts at the office. The list is endless. As a result, your own personal desires and dreams are often pushed aside. Sure, maybe you'll be able to read a book once in a while on whatever it is that strikes your fancy, but this is an occasional event at best. Somehow, somewhere along the way, most people cease pursuing their true interests and instead focus on the necessities of the moment. As a result, learning becomes a luxury.
But that doesn't mean that those intellectual tendencies have vanished. No, it simply means that they have been covered by the most immediately pressing needs. But suddenly, in your 50's, you will likely find that you have time now to pursue them.
If you are one of the lucky few who has time to really delve into these areas with all your effort, then go for it. Ask yourself what you would like to pursue, and start researching continuing or adult education courses at a local school. Enroll in as many as you can, on as wide a variety of subjects as you desire. Remember, continuing your education is not necessarily limited to attaining another degree; it is about satisfying your intellectual needs. So though a Ph.D. in theoretical physics may not be necessary, taking a few classes in it may very well satisfy your needs for a certain type of stimulation that merely reading books on the subject may not.
Some people, however, do want to eventually pursue another degree. For them, the years of the 50's are the perfect time to begin laying the foundation for such an undertaking. In this case it's a good idea to research the recommended reading lists for undergraduate and graduate students in the field of study they wish to pursue, and to begin reading through them. If your interest in the subject is more than a surface one, then working through these texts will be enjoyable. This of this as a litmus test. If you pass it to your satisfaction, then it's a good idea to enroll in a lower level - but required - course for the degree. For though it may not be possible to pursue this goal with 100% effort until retirement, you can certainly begin the process of chipping away at it before that time arrives.
The Philosophy of Nike
Sometimes, the ad campaign of a major corporation is so successful because it somehow taps into the zeitgeist. Few slogans have ever been as successful as Nike's much-repeated "Just Do It." It may, after all, seem like fairly obvious advice: Stop worrying about failure and just try it already. But this is a philosophy that is surprisingly unique in these times.
Your 50's, however, are the perfect time to start exploring your inner Renaissance Man or Woman. In other words, you have spent the past twenty or so years pursuing one or two specific areas in order to facilitate a successful professional career. But that does not at all mean that you have ceased enjoying or being fascinated by other things. Now, then, is the time to reconsider learning more about those things that were necessarily pushed aside as you did what you had to do professionally.
Because at the end of the day, your 50's are all about rediscovering who you really are, and fighting against the forces of necessity that have likely ruled for so long. By pursuing an education, you can wrest back control of your own intellectual life.
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