This is 50? Re-defining Middle Age
By Stephanie Gularte
When I was nineteen and working my way through college as a food server at a small Italian restaurant, a coworker, a petite blonde woman named Sheri, was let off of her shift early one night to celebrate her birthday. She didn’t seem excited about it at all. In fact, she was downright glum. As I wished her a happy birthday on her way out the door she turned around and, without a smile or any hint of irony, looked at me and said “I’m so old.” Sheri was twenty-six.
That moment stayed with me. I remember thinking she must be crazy for feeling that way. Obviously, she wasn’t old. How ridiculous. But I also felt this vague sense of dread. By my early-twenties, with Alphaville’s “Forever Young” playing on repeat in the cassette player of my ‘87 Nissan Sentra, my growing awareness of youth as an ephemeral and most-prized commodity in our culture filled me with a discomfiting mixture of loss and defiance.
I recently turned fifty. When that number comes around it's hard to deny its significance. Even with a reasonably healthy disposition toward aging, turning fifty compels many of us to reflect on the life lived so far, to recognize accomplishments, fantasize about opportunities missed, and to contemplate what might yet be achieved in the years ahead.
When we cross that half-century mark, our relationship with time seems to suddenly become even more complex. We’ve learned to respect time. Afterall, it has resolutely demonstrated its stubborn persistence, its endurance, and to be fair, its forgiveness. But we also find ourselves increasingly at odds with time, as though we are competitors in a race where the winner has long-been determined.
So, when this number rolled around for me while I was simultaneously navigating a mysterious health diagnosis and an intentional but terrifying midlife career change, I felt its arrival with a particular…let’s say, weight. Fifty. Five-Oh.
I also became increasingly attuned to what turning fifty seems to mean to others. The attitudes typically go something like this:
Under 40: “40 is pretty old, but 50? That’s like, old, old.”
40-49: “Ohmigod, it’s coming. It. Is. Coming. Ohmigod.”
60s: “I remember thinking that turning 50 was a big deal.”
70s and older: “So, you’re fifty. Get over it.”
For those of us who are actually residing in our fifties, reactions range from “How the hell can this be happening?!” to “Will someone please figure out how to slow down time?” and then, after the initial astonishment, “This is middle-aged? Really??”
It’s the latter question that I keep returning to. And it has me thinking. Aging is a reality that only the lucky get to experience. Yet, the older we get, the more likely we are to greet each new decade (hell, each new year) with a mix of resentment and denial. Is it death we fear…or something else? Something even more abstract than “the end?”
When we are young, becoming not young means becoming irrelevant, out of touch, and (gasp!) not “beautiful.”
Growing up in a youth-obsessed culture guarantees that we form a distorted view of aging. For the young, the vision of oneself over the age of 50 exists as if in some kind of alternate universe, as an identity that is somehow completely separate from one’s current self. When we are young, becoming not young means becoming irrelevant, out of touch, and (gasp!) not “beautiful.” It is something to dread and to stave off for as long as you possibly can. Or, in Sheri’s case, until your twenty-sixth birthday.
“Young people don’t know anything, especially that they’re young,” Don Draper famously opined, in Mad Men’s killer second season opening episode. As I get older, I find that I am actually more open to learning from young people. They remind me to keep an inspired eye on the ideal before moving directly to the practical, especially in matters of the heart. I’m fascinated to discover what it is like to be a young person today–it doesn’t look easy. And I am filled with a mix of nostalgia and compassion in recognizing what hasn’t changed much at all about life in one’s twenties or thirties. But, but…I don’t see much wisdom in adopting a younger generation’s notions of midlife. It’s worth noting that Don was thirty-five, middle-aged in 1962, when he made his simultaneously insightful and dismissive remark. And the specific source of his irritation? The young and brash baby boomers.
The Boomers and the Greatest Generation have been there, done that, and generally have a more robust sense of the continuum of life than the rest of us. They realized long ago that their present day “who” is not such a completely different entity from their much younger selves. My older friends don’t seem to notice our age difference as much as my younger friends do. Their concept of age and time is more fluid. I see in them a new mid-life reality for me and my contemporaries. Gen Xers are witnessing so many of our elders, those in their 70s, 80s, and beyond, enjoying active, engaged, sensual, fit, “silver” years. Seriously, it’s time to ease up on the now-cliché Boomer trashing. Every generation has its share of fringe-y loons and each generation holds its own, unique, collective lived experience and ideological pendulum swings. But as a group, Boomers are pretty badass. They have been disrupting the status quo since they first arrived on the scene. The very fact that they are now redefining what it is to be “elderly” makes our mid-life full of new possibilities.
We enter our fifties with a host of assumptions and expectations…our best years are behind us and what remains is a steady, sexless decline toward death.
We enter our fifties with a host of assumptions and expectations that are largely formed from a narrative created in marketing and PR departments. The most ominous of these: our best years are behind us and what remains is a steady, sexless decline toward death. It’s a chilling forecast that we spend our youth dreading. But now, standing firmly in the second half of my life, I join many other Gen Xers in a relieved realization that these assumptions are largely dead wrong. Collectively, my generation is reflecting on old concepts of middle-age and many of us are discovering that there is a lot that’s really great about having trod the planet for more than half a century.
As I think about it, when I separate out the experience of being in my 50s from the persistently negative social narrative about being middle-aged, I’m finding that I rather like being a quinquagenarian (a word I learned after asking google “what does it mean to be fifty years old?”). I feel good. Many days I feel great. I feel awake. I understand myself better than ever before. I appreciate and value my relationships in a way that is more fulfilling. I experience gratitude at a level that I couldn’t quite grasp when I was younger. I am less afraid. I am more at peace with myself, more comfortable in my own skin. I’m even enjoying the process of learning about and adapting to the changing needs of my body and I’m happy to be spending more energy prioritizing my health and wellbeing. My curiosity continues to grow with the passage of time and I am living my days with greater intention. Living with intention, it turns out, is not just a 10-day challenge on Headspace. It’s a real thing, and you get better at it with age!
There are new challenges now, and some new (as well as a few irritatingly familiar) frustrations. But I am better equipped to manage them. I’m more resilient, more philosophical. My 20-something and even my 30-something self would be surprised to know that, while I still have an intense nature, and yeah, patience is still not my super power, I’m far more chill now. Maybe most significantly, I can laugh at myself more easily and let go of things that don’t truly matter in the scheme of it all.
What might be possible when we let go of the idea of middle age and allow ourselves to fully live it?
The more perspective I gain on life in real-life, the more determined I am to reject the fear and loathing campaign perpetuated against aging in our culture. And the more committed I am to optimizing life in my fifties and beyond. Rather than denying or fighting time, what if we were determined to embrace this mid-life as an ideal moment to optimize our lives? To build on the wisdom we’ve collected throughout our decades in order to choose our own midlife story? What might be possible when we let go of the idea of middle age and allow ourselves to fully live it? Perhaps in doing so, we’ll not only be honoring ourselves, we’ll be paying respect to the trail-blazing generations that came before us, and offering the generations behind us a less-panicked, more inspired reply to poet Mary Oliver’s thrilling question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
So, as I again ask myself, “Is this middle-age? Really?” I feel something like: “Yes. Most emphatically, YES.”
What a great time to be fifty. If I’m lucky, soon I’ll be fifty-one.
Postscript: Stephanie wrote this at age 50 and published it 2 days after her 51st birthday. She is happy to report that midlife continues to inspire her.