A “Niners” Search for Meaning

When I was 49, a friend suggested that I should do something significant so I would always remember that year.  Otherwise, you spend a year lost in being “almost 50.” So, I quit my job and started coaching full time.   Taking that stand literally changed the direction of my life.

At the time, I was a “niner.”

A “niner” is someone whose age ends with 9: 29, 39, 49, 59…   That’s the year you spend being “almost.” Almost 40, almost 50, almost 60 … so that by the time you reach that milestone year, it’s anticlimactic.

When you’re a “niner,” you’re never really your true age.

Now I find that this concept is supported by research. A series of six studies reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science* highlighted the significance of being a “niner.”

The authors explain that, “…0-ending ages are momentous because they feel subjectively different from the ages that come before them, rather than because they impose objective changes on people’s lives.”  So, a looming new decade prompts reflection, and perhaps behavior change, not because anything is different developmentally, but because there’s a 9 at the end of your age.

I’ve noticed in my coaching practice that clients at those ages spend a lot of time reassessing their lives to decide what the next decade will bring.   Lisa came to me at 49 and decided to finally dedicate her spare room as an art studio in her home.  She couldn’t wait to express her heart any longer.   And  when Joe hit 49, he hated his job, so he started grad school despite his fears of being the class geezer.  He’s now a professor.

And this idea held true worldwide. One of the six studies considered 42,000+ subjects from more than 100 countries.  When asked if they thought about meaning in their lives, most respondents said “yes,” with “niners” reporting it more often than the other respondents.

The authors note also that the resultant behavior change can be positive or negative. For example some “niners” set new goals (as I did) that emphasizes or magnifies their feelings of self-worth, like running a marathon. Others may go the other direction and engage in harmful behaviors such as extramarital affairs or suicide.

As the authors surmise, “… several researchers have suggested that some people treat escaping from or destroying their lives as the only way to truly avoid the specter of meaninglessness.”   Reading that gave me a feeling of hopelessness.  It feels so sad.

So, what’s it like for you?  Have you been through this before?  How can you approach your upcoming decade intentionally and creatively?  What might be a significant step you can take to honor the end of a decade in your life’s journey?

I would love for you to tell us about your experience as a “niner.” We’ve all been there.  Please share your story in the comments below!


* Alter, A., Hershfield, H., People search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age. PNAS 2014 111 (48) 17066-17070

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