This story is part of WBUR's "The Third Act" series, highlighting people who worked full careers and re-invented themselves later in life, often in surprising and inspirational ways.
As a child, Natalie Jones lived in Boston, a granddaughter of Italian immigrants. They worked hard, but nobody in the family expected Jones to go to college. Her mother’s education had stopped at eighth grade.
Her family's focus on work over school determined the direction of Jones' life from an early age. In 1960, when she was in seventh grade at the John D. Philbrick School in Roslindale, she was asked to choose if she was "college-bound" or "business-bound."
At 12 years old, she didn't understand the question, so her mother told her to check off “business," setting Jones on an academic course that did not include higher education.
"I never thought I was smart enough to go to college," Jones said.
Decades later, as a single parent, Jones would overcome that conviction and design her life's “third act,” pursuing multiple degrees while caring for her sons — and fulfilling a quietly held dream.
Jones is part of a wave of Americans embarking on whole new adventures in their 50s, 60s, or even their 70s. Americans are living longer, and many are bucking the traditional idea of three life stages — learning, earning and then retiring — to chase new ambitions later on.
For Jones, it was the need to care for her family that would lead her down a long road of self-discovery.
After high school, she went to work as an office administrator. She saved $500 and took off for Europe with a friend, traveling to Spain, where she met a bartender from Liverpool, England, who was working in a little Spanish town for the summer.
"I said, 'Ooh, I really like him.' " Jones recalled. "It was love at first sight, and I ended up marrying him."
The couple lived together in Spain for a couple of adventurous years and eventually returned to Boston. With no college education, her husband worked factory jobs and as a hairdresser. According to Jones, for about 12 years, their life was fine. They had two sons, but by 1986, their marriage was in crisis: money was tight and Jones and her husband were at odds.
One night, he came home and said he wanted a divorce.
"It was like a kick in the stomach," said Jones, recalling the difficult conversation that followed with their boys. "We said, ‘You know, Mommy and Daddy aren’t happy living together, and so Daddy’s going to live somewhere else. But we’re always going to be your parents. We’re always going to love you.’ “
Her husband moved out, and the marriage was over. At 41, Jones was on her own with two sons — ages 5 and 9 — a mortgage and no college degree. Still, she clung to the belief that she and her boys would be OK.
"I just felt like, somehow we're going to get through this," she recalled.
Jones worked hard, often juggling three part-time jobs — office work, waiting tables, delivering flowers. She did worry about her boys growing up without a strong male role model, so she joined a support program for families dealing with divorce. She was later invited to become a volunteer facilitator with the group and discovered she was good at it. But volunteer work wasn't going to pay the bills.
Well into her 40s, Jones pushed through the old fear she wasn't smart enough for college and began an academic journey to pursue multiple degrees in human services. She started at Stonehill College in Easton, to earn a certificate to become a substance abuse counselor.
"I'm walking across the parking lot with tears in my eyes, saying, 'Oh my god, I'm in college,'" she recalled. "I was just so thrilled to be there."
Her studies continued at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she received her bachelor's degree in 2001, the same year her younger son graduated from high school. The family celebrated with a joint graduation party. Her mother, who had never imagined her daughter would go to college, was there to watch Jones walk across the stage and accept her diploma.
"I was just beaming," Jones said.
She went on to Wheelock College to earn a master’s degree at 59 and became a licensed clinical social worker. That was 16 years ago, and she’s still practicing today, and loving it.
"I just got a new client who's 93 years old," she said. Jones finds purpose engaging with her clients, "hearing their stories, and hearing what they struggle with and then trying to help them see a different way by changing their narrative.”
Some of her best advice comes from her own experience: "I'm constantly saying to people: you can write your own script."
Her older son, Garrett, 44, said his mother's third act transformed her from someone who worked to survive to someone who is now passionate about her work.
"When I was growing up, work always felt like a necessity," said Garrett Jones, who lives in Oregon and works in advertising. "It always felt like she was just trying to get by."
According to Garrett, his mother faced significant hurdles, including the economic challenges associated with a working-class background, followed by the divorce. He said as his mother worked multiple jobs, he and his brother were often left on their own after school. But as she began to pursue her education and her eventual profession, he said, it was like "a light turned on," as his mother’s passion for her work took hold.
"She was helping people," he said. "It gave her value. It made her feel empowered and that was really nice to see."
Natalie Jones is among lots of older people living their third act — either by choice or necessity, or both — according to Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard professor of education and author of "The Third Chapter — Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50." She said after publishing the book in 2009, she heard from lots of people like Jones, who figured out how to reinvent their lives. Whether or not they are highly educated or wealthy, she said, "they find a way of taking this risk and pursuing another way of giving to the world."
But late-life reinvention can also be challenging and scary, according to Lawrence-Lightfoot.
"We have to lose some of our fear in taking this great risk," she said. "We have to lose our fear of failure because inevitably, in the short run, we might fail."
That's a lesson that Jones, who plans to work well into her 80s, took to heart. In her third act, she not only discovered self-confidence and launched a new career helping herself and others, but she also realized a lifelong dream to live by the beach.
Six years ago, Jones moved into a tidy second-floor condo in Hull, where she can smell and hear the ocean. The town occupies a narrow spit of land between Hull Bay and the sands of Nantasket Beach, where decades ago she'd bring her boys for picnics.
“The kids were so happy at the beach," she said, as she looked out across the water.
Sitting on a bench not far from her home, she pointed to an egret hovering gracefully above the bay and was reminded of a poster that used to hang on the wall of her church: "It said, 'Faith is when you go out on a limb, and you know something's going to catch you.'"
This story has been updated to correct the year in which Jones was in seventh grade. It was 1960.
Have you re-invented your life in a surprising or inspiring way? If so, we want to hear about it. Email us at email@example.com.
This article was originally published on November 06, 2023.
This segment aired on November 6, 2023.