05/31 – Third Act In Life

Edward Kelly

Edward J Kelly

Edward J Kelly

 “When the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do sir”? John Milton Keynes

It is self-evident that each one of us is an individual and that as individuals we are impacted, directly or indirectly, by the organisations we are associated with. In turn, organisations and individuals are all enmeshed in a society of which they are part. Each is therefore inter-dependent; individuals on organisations, and organisations and individuals on society and vice versa. So it is common sense that when a big change affects all of society, such as human longevity1, then society, organisations and individuals have a responsibility to respond. So how are we getting on?


How are our social systems and cultural attitudes responding to this change in human longevity? There are pockets of change and some societies are doing better than others. For instance, Sweden tops the poll for older people actively engaged in the economy, which in turn has a measureable impact on GDP. Overall though change has been slow. This suggests that society is not yet willing to consider that we could have a Third Act in our lives, a Third Age perhaps but not a Third Act. If it did it, we could begin to address the pension crisis as many older people would now be working. This would also positively impact their physical, mental and emotional health while also increasing their sense of engagement and value to society. We would have to change our language though; toning down words like ‘age and retirement’ and up words like ‘transition and opportunity’. As it is, society scores poorly on this measure of ‘how are we getting on’ as it doesn’t see this new gift of time as an opportunity and as a result doesn’t provide any structures to support people in transition.


How are organisations responding to this change in human longevity? Subject to the same social norms and an absence of transformational language, once their employees reach the age of 60, the drive to get them out begins in earnest. Then assuming they are checking out (retiring), rather than transitioning to a whole new period in life, few offer any transition support. Many offer ‘retirement courses’2 but these are designed to prepare people for a world that no longer exists whereas ‘to transition’ allows you to prepare for a life you have yet to create. People need time and support to figure this stuff out. ‘What am I going to do and be in this new Third Act of my life’ is not an easy question to answer. As it is Organisations also score poorly on this measure of “how are we getting on” as they are failing to upgrade their thinking on human longevity and employee retirement. This also suggests that we need more flexible organisational designs, ones that are more attractive to Third Actors to stay on and or to come back. A new image of an employee life cycle, as seen to progress through an Arc rather than a straight line that ends at a cliff, would be helpful.


How are individuals responding to this change in human longevity? In the absence of any social structures or organisational supports, individuals are left to make this transition on their own. This is proving difficult. Being used to a structure and to a sense of meaning and purpose that underpinned their work, home life and identity in their second act, many struggle to make the transition. We can however be forgiven for this as most never expected to have a Third Act – it is after all a new phenomenon of our time – and therefore don’t know how to make sense of it. Ask our colleagues, friends, families or look to society for help? They don’t know either. Generally we are greeted with assumptions and platitudes, “so how is your retirement going”? Answering honestly, “I am struggling to work it out” doesn’t meet their expectations. Better to say, “yes I’m doing well; we are off to such and such, etc.,”. Travel is the panacea. “Oh if must be great to have all that time”. And of course it is, but without an underlying sense of meaning and purpose, it can soon become quite hollow. Therefore Individuals, like society and organisations, are also scoring poorly on this measure of “so how are we getting on”?

What Does A Good Third Act Look Like?

In the second act, we had hope and with many years ahead of us believed that with the right plan and the right amount of will power we could achieve what we wanted. As we come into The Third Act it is different. Despite the increase in longevity, our own mortality comes into view. As a result though we maybe ready to consider that The Third Act is not something we can acquire; rather it is something that ensues from our engagement in meaningful activities, relationships and practices. To that extent it is a bit like the second act in which many of us had meaningful activities (our work, hobbies, interests etc.,), meaningful relationships (with family, friends and colleagues) and a sense of personal worth, reflected back to us from society. As we contemplate The Third Act, we realise that these meaningful activities, relationships and personal practices all need to be redefined. This is the important work we do in transition from the second to third-act; figuring out what meaningful activities we will engage in, what meaningful relationships we will develop (and in some cases let go of) and what personal reflective practices will bring us into a new and deeper relationship with ourselves. The rest we leave to what emerges.

Making The Transition

While each person’s experience of transition is unique to them, all successful transitions go through the same archetypal stages and thresholds. In Stage 1 we receive a Wake Up Call that tells us that something is about to change. Most of the time we avoid or deny this, often until it is too late. If we accept it though, Stage 2 The Search can begin; this is a search for new meaning or purpose to underpin this next stage of our lives. In Stage 3 The Struggle we have that long overdue appointment with ourselves where we learn something new or let go of something old. Then Stage 4 The Breakthrough sees us emerging with a new sense of ourselves, better adapted to our changed circumstances. The final stage, Stage 5 The Integration presents us with new challenges as we seek to integrate our new selves back into our ordinary lives and relationships. Being used to us in a certain way, this is not always greeted well by those around us.

So What Do We Do?

The Third Act organisation helps to educate people about the impact of human longevity as well as to support individuals in transition. We educate through conferences and seminars and support individuals in transition through Third Act Transition Programmes and one to one coaching. For more information go to

Questions for Society, Organisations and Individuals


What changes could be made in our social systems that would recognise the impact of longevity and support an active Third Act rather than a passive Third Age? How can we also change our cultural attitudes such that we tone down the focus on ‘age and retirement’ and tone it on ‘opportunity and transition’?


What changes do organisations need to make now that they know their long-serving employees are no longer retiring, but rather transitioning to a whole new life that could last 25-30 years? Also, given the changing nature of age and work do organisations need to adopt new more flexible organisational designs so that Third Actors could stay on and or come back in new roles?


What can individuals do to take more responsibility for their own transition to The Third Act? What sort of shift in their underlying consciousness is required? What old assumptions need to be revisited, what new ones need to be considered? And what support does each person feel they need?

  1. Advances in human longevity have been described as the greatest social achievement of the past 100 years. We are now living 25-30 years longer than our great grandparents, the equivalent of a whole new adult lifetime. What was old age for them is now middle age for us. Never before have so many people lived for so long; in fact two thirds of those who have ever lived over the age of 65 are alive to-day. This new Third Act in life is truly a new phenomenon of our time
  2. Retirement comes from the French verb retirer, which means to withdraw to a place of safety and seclusion, not a great place to spend 25-30 years of active

About the Author

Dr. Edward Kelly is an entrepreneur, researcher and facilitator. In the past few years he has led over forty workshops in Intel, Accenture, Google, and others. He is a regular presenter on the MBA and Innovation programmes at University College Dublin (UCD) and has published articles on adult development in the ILR and JITP. More recently he has facilitated workshops, developed programmes and has run a conference on The new Third Act in life. He is currently writing a book on adult development and leadership. Prior to this, he ran a successful telecoms business which he founded in 1995 and before that organised and participated in ‘The Great London to Sydney Taxi Ride’ in 1988, which entered the Guinness Book of Records for the longest most expensive taxi ride in history. He holds an ITC, BA, MBA and PhD. He can be contacted, on +353 86 810 2000 and at



  1. Albert Klamt on July 21, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Excellent! I am now myself in the third act. Meeting Edward J Kelly is a joy as we met virtually already since 2010 or 2012 at the London Integral Circle. Within the last years I became explicity more and more aware of the third act. Born in 1954 I see too much folks in my age who just live passively the third chapter of life. Instead creating opportunities and actively initiating new transitions.

    Best from Berlin,


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