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.

"I think journalism can make a difference in the way that medievalism cannot," Vacca said. "Medievalists know a lot about the history of Islamic culture, but as a journalist I can reach more people."

After graduation, she found landing a job has been difficult. At an internship, she faced quizzical looks from uneasy bosses who seemed to say, "She's old enough to be my mother!"

"My only regret is that I would love to do investigative journalism," said Vacca. "But I need to build relationships with people over time and I don't have the time."

Today Vacca is back writing with renewed inspiration to finish the project: a series of profiles on women of her generation "who accomplished what their mothers could never do."

Sheehy confirms that reinvention at any age requires good planning. Don't burn professional bridges, save enough money for the transition and choose a field that is "parallel with what you do, rather than start from ground up."

Work vs. Life

But for some who switch gears, life can trump good planning.

After getting married last year, New York City writers David Brinkerhoff and Ronda Kaysen left successful careers to embark on a new adventure. She had always been a free spirit, but he, though creative, had spent 14 years on the fast track at a financial news agency.

After much deliberation, they uprooted to Mexico, where they studied Spanish and began freelancing.

"I was unusual for a Generation Xer," said Brinkerhoff, 36. "I had started a job and stayed with it. But I wanted to take a step back and see what else was out there. I was too old to take an entry level job, but too young to put myself out to pasture."

Brinkerhoff's only break from the company was in 2001 when he had hiked the Appalachian Trail. Now he wanted to leave high-pressure deadlines and write a memoir on the experience.

The couple planned meticulously, renting their house and putting away enough money to live on for a year. What they couldn't anticipate happened two weeks after their arrival: Ronda discovered she was pregnant.

"Last year, I felt nothing could stop me from living overseas, and I didn't care what happened," said Brinkerhoff. "But at a certain point we have to go home and make some money."

"If you're a couple, you can take more risks financially than if you have to care for someone else," said Brinkerhoff.

The couple will have the baby in Mexico, but plan to return to the United States at the end of the year.

Poorer, but with new opportunities for writing, they say they have no regrets. "For our relationship and marriage this has been wonderful," said Kaysen. "We've really bonded."

What they've learned, they say, is that money is not the only reward for employment.

Work not only defines a person's social identity, but it gives one a "sense of purpose," according to Dorothy Cantor, author of "What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up?"

"In this generation we've taught people to exercise, eat well and everything about 401Ks, but we are going to be healthy, wealthy and bored, unless we pay attention to the other parts of life."

For dancer Peters, who is now getting straight A's in her graduate work, starting all over has been daunting but ultimately challenging.

"I was in dance for so darn long that I was comfortable and successful," she said. "All that was taken away, but now I need to rebuild myself. I'm really focused, and I have so much better of an idea of how to direct my energy. It's incredibly exciting to be using my brain again."