I’m about to start my third year of my fifties, and I’m not liking this age very much. When a decade of my life starts with appendicitis, it can’t be a good sign. Although my fifties have given me my first international trip and enabled me to afford all sorts of cool and useful gadgets, “the youth of old age” offers neither the pleasures of youth nor the benefits of old age.
Permit me to grouse a bit about why it stinks to be in one’s fifties.
You’re too old to do stuff, but not old enough to get out of doing it.
I don’t consider myself a “Bob the Builder” type, but I am able to fix things around the house. Or was able to until I started my fifties.
We bought a new dishwasher last year. The instructions seemed simple enough, so I thought I’d install it. I had installed appliances before. After hours of stretching, bending, and lifting, my body decided that it didn’t want to install a dishwasher anymore. I had to hire a handyman to finish the job.
But hire a handyman when your hair isn’t completely gray, and neighbors will look at you like, “What is his problem? He’s either lazy or can’t be trusted around tools.” If I were fifteen years older, not only would there be no shame in hiring a handyman, Boy Scouts will volunteer to help me as their Eagle Scout project!
The stuff you manage to do isn’t good enough.
One task we fifty-somethings can’t get out of is running stuff. Our current US president is 51, and his last two predecessors were in their fifties for at least half of their terms.
The problem is that we are not old enough to be considered wise and grandfatherly, and too old to be thought of as youthful and dynamic. We’re expected to be both, and we wind up being neither. We’re not wise enough not to do inappropriate things with a cigar or to avoid getting into a war without a valid reason or a plan. And we’re not dynamic enough to come up with a practical, cost-saving medical system.
You don’t have to be in charge of a global superpower to be expected to run things and wind up running them poorly. My kids are at the age when they’re supposed to be old enough to make their own choices, and my job is to try to keep them from making the wrong ones. This hasn’t worked out well so far.
As bad as these are, none of these compare to the ultimate woe of fifty-somethings…
If you die in your fifties, you’re a loser.
If you die before you’re 50, it’s a tragedy. If you die after you’re 60, you’re considered to have lived a “rich, full life.” But if you die in your fifties, it’s your own damn fault.
I’m only two months older than James Gandolfini. He has been deeply mourned and honored with many well-deserved accolades. But you can bet that while people are expressing their praise, they’re still thinking, “If only he ate right, exercised, and stopped smoking.”
Even when people in their fifties die of an incurable disease, it’s still considered their fault. Look at an obituary of someone born during the Kennedy administration who died of cancer. It typically reads that they “lost a bravely fought battle.” It’s as if they had fought more bravely, they would have won!
With life expectancy is expected to reach 120 (unless you live in a country in perpetual famine with no sanitation and clean drinking water, and no one besides the occasional celebrity cares what happens to you), death at any age is treated like a personal failure. It’s as if you couldn’t muster the strength to overcome the natural biological process that enables a species to grow and stay healthy.
The fifties are not the youth of old age. We have neither the stamina and energy of youth, nor the wisdom and experience of old age. We don’t even qualify for senior discounts! It’s an age as awkward as the pimpliest parts of adolescence. It is an age, however, that I’m happy to live in. That’s because I don’t want to die in my fifties and look like a loser.