The Third Third Language Challenge: Why Use "Third Third"?

March 19, 2020

De Pree Journal

I like “third third” because it’s fairly neutral. It divides life into three chronological segments without specifying exactly what they are. Third third suggests something like 55-85 or 60-90 without actually saying so.

The Third Third Language Challenge: Why Use “Third Third”?

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Max De Pree Center for Leadership
Fuller Theological Seminary

Recently, I’ve put up a couple of blog posts having to do with what I’m calling “The Third Third Language Challenge.” The first of these posts considered the unfortunate phrase “aging monster” in reference to the population growth of older adults. The second essay focused on the problems with the familiar label “silver tsunami.” Today, I want to talk about the phrase “third third.” Why do we use this phrase? What does it mean?

I inherited the phrase “third third” when I became the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. My predecessor (two back) was a man named Walter C. Wright Jr. In the final years of his tenure at the De Pree Center, Walt sensed a huge need and opportunity to help people navigate what then might have been called “retirement.” Understanding the inadequacy of this word and the narrative it embodied, Walt chose to speak about the “third third” of life. He wrote a book entitled, The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your FutureThis book was published near the end of Walt’s time at the center. After he moved on, his third third work was put in the freezer. The center focused, as it had in the past, on the work done by marketplace leaders.

When I came to the De Pree Center in April 2015, I started asking all sorts of people how our center might help them. I heard lots about their desire to integrate their faith with their work. But, every now and then, someone would say to me something like this: “I’m absolutely interested in the faith-work issue. But I’m also getting near the end of my typical work life. I suppose I’m going to retire at some point. I know I need to get out of the way of the younger leaders I’ve been mentoring. But I don’t feel like I’m done making a difference. I don’t even know how to think about retirement. And my church is no help at all. I wish you folks would do something on retirement.”

During the past five years, I’d hear something like this every few months. And every time I did, I’d say something like, “That’s a great idea. I’d love to deal with faith and retirement, not just faith and work. If somebody ever gives the De Pree Center some seed money, we’ll definitely get into this.” Folks who hear this would agree, and that would be the end of it.

Until a year ago (February 2019). I couple approached me about potentially sponsoring the De Pree Center’s initial “retirement” effort. Actually, they used the phrase “third phase” to describe what they meant. They agreed that “retirement” wasn’t a helpful descriptor. And they were eager to provide the seed money we needed to get started.

I chose to use the phrase “third third” for several reasons. First, it was the De Pree Center’s historic description. Second, Walt Wright said we were welcome to use it, if we wished. He also said, graciously, that we should feel no obligation to do so. Third, I opted for “third third” because it’s simple and easy to say. Others use “unretirement,” which makes sense but requires four syllables rather than two.

I like “third third” because it’s fairly neutral. It divides life into three chronological segments without specifying exactly what they are. Third third suggests something like 55-85 or 60-90 without actually saying so. Plus, third third doesn’t imply that human life falls into neat stages, something that might be said of “third stage” or “third phase.” Indeed, one of the important truths about the third third of life is that a person in this time of life might be in any number of life stages.

One criticism of “third third” is that it is actually too simply. If a person lives until 90, for example, that person will experience a variety of phases or stages. Some have suggested that it’s better to speak in terms of “young old” (60s), “middle old” (70s), and “old old” (80s and up). But even this doesn’t work in all situations. People in their 60s with early onset demential might live as “old old” folk. While many in their 80s are still active in mind and body. I have a dear friend who is 97 years old and going strong. Indeed, she is one of the most enthusiastic and vital people I know.

Another thing I like about “third third” is that it doesn’t presume a particular narrative of life. “Retirement,” on the contrary, projects a particular story. “To retire” meant, originally, “to retreat or withdraw.” People who retire often imagine withdrawing, not just from ordinary work, but also from a life of service and contribution. Retired people aren’t expected to be productive because, well, they’re retired. Now, I am not saying that it’s wrong for someone to stop working for pay. Nor am I suggesting that people should never slow down and rest, or devote more time to play, or have many hours to spend with their grandchildren. But even if we retire from paid work or full-time parenting or whatever has claimed our time in the second third of life, we should not retire for the work God gave to all human beings, the work of being fruitful, the work of making disciples, the work of loving our neighbor. Indeed, no matter whether we retire from our usual work or not, God intends for us to flourish even when we have gray hair (the literal meaning of “in old age” in Psalm 92:14). Or, as I prefer to say, even in the third third.

Looking for More on the Third Third of Life?

You can find much more about the third third of life by checking out our Third Third Resources page.

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