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A personal guide to growing up

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO WHEN YOU GROW UP?

Starting the Next Chapter of Your Life

By Dorothy Cantor

Little Brown, $22.95

Reviewed by ALECIA SWASY

When Max L., a 58-year-old vice president at a food company, ponders life after retirement, he figures he will spend time writing his memoirs and doing stand-up comedy, a return to his childhood passion as"king of the one-liners." He also wants to dance.

"It always surprises people that for a short, kind of pudgy guy, I'm a better-than-average ballroom dancer," he says.

Still, Max wavers on what is really ahead in just a few years."Nothing I am doing at the moment suggests what I should be doing next."

His view on life after a career, as chronicled by psychologist Dorothy Cantor in What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up?", helps to illustrate how little is done to help those facing major changes, whether it is a surprise layoff or planned retirement after 35 years on the job. Cantor's book, based on stories revealed to her by a number of clients (whose last names, understandably, are reduced to initials), is more useful than the seemingly endless array of "heal thyself" books on the market. They often do not get beyond drivel and platitudes such as "everything will be peachy as long as you eat right, exercise and invest in your 401K!" You will be the svelte millionaire next door, such books seem to suggest, assuming the Nasdaq index and Dow Jones average ever stop dropping like rocks.

Unlike Cantor's book, these self-help tomes miss the bigger and more complicated part of life without the 9-to-5 component: What's next? Cantor has seen this in her practice, which consists of people at their prime time of change, their 40's to 60's. Her work to help them map out the future is the heart of her book's theme.

It's particularly timely considering the year 2001's spate of new downsizings at DaimlerChrysler, Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Lucent Technologies. Big companies continue to remind workers: There are no guarantees of gold watches, pensions and health insurance. Instead, a career is often cobbled together from stints at many companies.

Cantor's book doesn't read like a Psych 101 text. Instead, it offers a step-by-step guide of self-review, illustrated with anecdotes from eight of her clients' quests to get a life. Besides Max, we meet Jack, a 58-year-old guidance counselor who has held various jobs since he was seven years old. Isabella, age 45 and divorced, offers her fantasies about the time when she can shuck her pantyhose and toss the business suits. But the real star of the book is May, an 84-year-old psychologist who still sees patients. She muses about her eventual retirement and spending more time at her cottage. But she quickly adds: "What the hell would I do up there all the time?"

May is a role model for all. As a young woman, she joined the army at the beginning of World War II. After marriage and raising her children, she went back to college to finish her degree. Her life was a constant search for new challenges.

She's not alone. Cantor notes that almost one in three men are still testing the waters to decide their life's work by their mid-30s. (The number is somewhat lower for women.) It's only between our 40s and 60s that the majority of Americans feel good and have a greater sense of control over their lives. Indeed, Cantor contends the infamous mid-life crisis is a myth. Instead, she characterizes it as a time of reflection and evaluating unfinished business. True, most middle-aged folks don't go bonkers, but the author should check out the headlines on the extreme mid-life meltdowns: the disturbing number of people who shoot up their factories and office buildings after losing their jobs.

Her book is definitely skewed toward those with choices and money to pursue their dreams. And it focuses on those making orderly transitions to the third stage of their lives. The navel-contemplating nature of her exercises probably wouldn't sit well initially with those who are suddenly jobless and deep in debt. But as they work through their anger, Cantor's process of taking a life inventory helps expand identity to something beyond what's on the business card.

The author writes that a big component of growing up is figuring out your identity. Consider how Jimmy Carter identifies himself. At times, he is a "submariner, farmer, warehouseman, state senator, governor, even president." Another test: measure your activity comfort level to help determine your need for planned events after your working years are done. Activity level one is a couch potato. Level 10 is a whirling dervish. May, the 84-year-old psychologist, figures good genes will give her another decade of work. She's a 10, although she has made one concession to her age: May no longer sees patients in the evenings.

As Cantor's clients do their inventories and make conclusions about their futures, she suggests keeping these mini-autobiographies on the shelf for occasional review. "After all, growing up is never done," she writes. With some of her clients, the reflections at the end are sad commentaries about living life. A stockbroker told Cantor: "What I have done as work has absolutely no redeeming social value." (Must have been on one of Dow's rockier days.) A nursing supervisor, among others, finds promise in the exercise: "I think it will be a terrible thing if I hit my old age without ever having done something bold, difficult or dangerous. I need to be a little rash."

May once again takes the prize for her upbeat take on life. "I wouldn't mind finding a boyfriend, although I know that's improbable. I actually did have one for a while a couple years ago, but he started to lose his marbles."

Alecia Swasy is assistant managing editor/business at the Times and author of Changing Focus: Kodak and the Battle to Save a Great American Company.

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