Second Adulthood: Experts Say If It's Not Scary, You're Not Growing

In 1970, with her high school diploma fresh in hand, Sheila Peters followed her lifelong passion into the workplace — dancing with professional companies from New York City to California.

But at 46 — divorced and struggling to support two children — she was forced off the stage and into the business world. As the operations coordinator for a Massachusetts venture capital firm, Peters said she had been robbed of her identity.

"It was excruciatingly painful to sit at a desk for eight hours a day," said Peters, who had founded two dance companies, but had never even used a computer.

"I felt like a caged animal, like I had lost myself," Peters, now 54, said. "My whole identity was in creativity and movement. I was doing something alien, not because I wanted to but because I needed to for the children."

Today Peters has reinvented herself, returning to college to get a master's degree in leadership. Her dream is to teach executives to use movement for negotiating skills, presentations and stress management.

This time, it's her choice.

'Second Adulthood'

More Americans than ever before are taking another shot at growing up, according to researchers. A recent Merrill Lynch study of more than 3,000 baby boomers reported that 83 percent intend to keep working, and 56 percent of them hope to do so in a new profession.

With people living longer, more adults in all age brackets are breaking away from the security of steady jobs to pursue a second adulthood. And for them — like Peters — the move is at once exhilarating and terrifying.

"Initially, I was scared to death," said Peters, who 36 years earlier had graduated as high school valedictorian. "I felt like I was not able to measure up. I was at the top of my game and am now a peon in a new field. Having to switch really shakes your confidence."

The term "second adulthood" was first coined in 1995 by author Gail Sheehy, who mapped out life's transitions in her seminal work "Passages."

"Most people want to find a new self and a new basis from which they can live," Sheehy told ABC News. "More and more people are saying, 'I am willing to take that chance and it's worth it.'"

"The reason that career change is so threatening is you have to become an amateur again," she said.

No transition is ever easy. "If it's comfortable, you're not changing," Sheehy said. "You have to become yeasty again to be able to grow."

Starting Over

At 65, Diane Vacca knows something about change and growth. The New York City grandmother dropped out of college to marry and never finished her undergraduate degree in math until she was over 40.

By the time she reached her 50s, she had a doctorate from Yale University in medieval studies and a distinguished career as a literature professor.

But when her mother was dying, she stopped teaching. After being rejected for numerous jobs, she decided to write a book. That effort never got off the ground. Loving research, she became a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the fall of 2004, nothing seemed to click and she asked herself, "What am I going to do for the rest of my life?"

Radicalized by a new interest in politics and a desire to "use my voice to effect a change," Vacca plunged into education once again. At the age of 63, she enrolled at Columbia's School of Journalism.

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