Second adulthood: The flaming fifties
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven () - October 12, 2006 - 12:00am
Gail Sheehy, a prolific writer and top researcher on the largely unexplored territory of late adult development, started her studies in 1988. "The idea was to map out the predictable crises of this territory," she said. "I had to try to confront the cultural taboo surrounding the Change of Life." This was expressed in her first book, The Silent Passage, referring to the silent denial called menopause of both men and women. Since The Silent Passage reached No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list, she became a popular public speaker that brought her to many parts of the country where she continued to interview people from all walks of life regarding their life experiences.

Her second book, The Passages, is a collection of anecdotes of the tryout twenties, turbulent thirties and flourishing forties. "I stopped before 50 in Passages. Like so many others of my generation, I couldn’t imagine life beyond 50, for it conjured up mothers who slipped into depression or some slope-shouldered fellow sitting in a fishing boat while the world goes by – a time of winding down," Gail Sheehy said.

This article is drawn from her latest book "New Passages — The New Map of Adult Life".
Phobia about aging
Forty-five represents the old age of youth, while 50 initiates the youth of Second Adulthood. The striving, competing, proving and besting of rivals that lent a furious intensity to our young adulthood, forming the basis of our ego identities, now feel more like a dull representation of duty: Why do I have to work so hard? What is it all for?

There is also the inevitable anger and frustration at physical changes in the body. A mourning period usually sets in. Am I ready to accept the ebbing of my physical prowess? Losing the unfair advantage of youthful beauty? Giving up the magic of fertility?

Given the phobia about aging in our society and the habitual expectation of decline in every sphere, people often give in to it at first. Their state of mind causes them to give up on sports they enjoyed or beauty and workout regimens that work for them. They forget about eating and drinking disciplines. They may let their hair go unflatteringly gray or chop it off in some blunt accommodation to ‘looking my age’. Some swell with obesity, sleep a lot, or sink into chronic depression. In the eyes of others they appear to turn "old" overnight. To them, it feels like entering a "winter of the soul".
What the analysts of society observe
Psychologists Buhler, Erikson, Jung and Leunson observed that adulthood changes markedly between the turbulent thirties and flourishing forties. Meantime, Gail Sheehy observes that Second Adulthood begins in the mid-forties with the Age of Mastery between 45 and 65 while late adulthood from 65 to 85, the Age of Integrity.

Although men and women lose some of their most cherished strengths in the middle years, they tend to gain a special intensity as they are dared to face the opposing forces of life these new stage present. Carl Jung describes it nicely, "Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life ...with the false assumptions that our ideals will serve us. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning."

Sheehy’s observation of the American generation referred to the conservative Silent Generation and the Vietnam’s generation of war veterans who are now in their 60s.
Men and women in their ’50s
This "Middlescence" passage into 2nd Adulthood or Age of Mastery is a volatile transition comparable to adolescence – "When all the wisdom we have gathered from 50 years of experience in living begins to come together."

The stage after 45 is exciting, more and more women to soar into the unknown. As family obligations fade away, many become motivated to stretch their independence, learn new skills, return to school, plunge into new careers, rediscover the creativity and adventurousness of their youths, and at last listen to their own needs. They laugh at themselves for having been so afraid that losing their youthful looks would mean losing their power. On the contrary! Their days become filled with small astonishments.

Men, too, feel stirrings in the creative side of their nature. Most hunger for closer intimate attachments. Many men who arrive emotionally bankrupt in middle life are learning how to use not only their rational thinking powers, but also "that which is imprinted upon the spirit of man by an inward instinct." The task in this transition is not only psychological, it is also spiritual. We sense that time is growing short and there is no use waiting to settle old scores. It is time to forgive the erring parent, embrace the estranged sibling, or let go of disappointments in the prodigal child. Religious faith may be reconsidered or renewed.

Meantime, the older men were so busy during their younger years, meeting the financial responsibilities of a family, moving up in their careers, trying to make ends meet. However, time races by, and then something tragic happens. Maybe they lose a job or a spouse, and suddenly the things they have invested all their time in, they question: Is it really just about going to school, setting up a career, getting married, having two-point -three-kids and a dog, and dying? They start all over, trying to find out what really is the meaning in life."
Aging vs. successful aging
In young adulthood, we survive by figuring out how best to please or perform for the powerful ones who will protect and reward us: parents, teachers, lovers, mates, bosses, mentors. It is all about proving ourselves.

The transformation of middle life is to move into a more stable psychological state of mastery, where we control much of what happens in our life and can often act on the world, rather than habitually react to whatever the world throws at us. Reaching this state of mastery is also one of the best signs of good mental and psychological functioning in old age.

It is not automatic, however. Successful aging or the bonus of Second Adulthood is a career choice. It requires a new focus, energy, discipline and a whole set of strategies. It must be done consciously. But, what is it we are supposed to do?

Having a second career is not the way our culture trains us to think. People often explain their increasingly sedentary, risk-averse middle years with the cliché, "I’m too old for that now." As they see it, they have worked hard, made the money they need, launched their kids, and now it is okay to coast.

Take for example, Luisa, a real estate broker. She says, "I just did whatever people my age were doing at that time: I went to college at 16, I got married at 20, I had a child at 21, I have always been right on schedule" At 38, having launched her children, she started her own successful business and stopped counting birthdays. More importantly, she stopped changing. She has now passed 50, but since there are no instructions or realistic images for how to be a woman of 50 today, she finds herself doing what she has done for the past 17 years. "I work at home, I work at work, and I work in the car." And, everyday she feels more weighed down.
Mortality crisis
Living on the edge is how precarious it often feels when we come to the top of the mountain or what seems like the top, and are startled to find ourselves looking over the edge. It could happen to any of us:

One day, you are surrounded by friends and colleagues with your life more or less in order, apparently enjoying good health, when a minor physical problem blossoms into one that requires "routine" exploratory surgery. "Have your wife call me, I’d like to set her mind at rest," the doctor says. The patient does not ask why his wife’s mind needs to be set at rest if it is all routine.

You enter the hospital, fully active, a man in charge, a busy man, successful in your enterprise. You are now required to surrender your watch, your wallet, your credit cards, your glasses, and your rings. You are asked if you have any dentures or contact lenses. Within ten minutes from a fully functioning executive, you have been stripped down to your essentials.

In the next cubicle, a man in his fifties awaiting exploratory surgery says: "I feel like those men in the French prisons of old. You never know what they are going to do to you until you hear the guards running down to your cell. They throw open the door, drag you out and that is the first time you know that they are taking you out to chop your head off."

Meantime, your wife waits, and she keeps telling herself that this is just routine. Then, your doctor comes down the hall and tells your wife, "I’m sorry. It is prostate cancer, but don’t worry. I can assure you, he will die of old age before prostate cancer ever catches up with him."

You’re in luck. You did not fall off the edge, not this time. When you swim out of anesthesia, the surgeon assures you this is no big deal. You believe him and contemplate a new day tomorrow.
Negotiating with mortality
The ones who feel most imperiled are not those in the fifties or sixties, but men and women in their forties since the notion of mortality is new to them. They feel that: "Just around the corner I’m going to lose my looks, my knees will go, then my eyes and my ears and my sex drive, and then I’ll just roll over and die." They are at the beginning of the second half of adult life. Because they have no experience yet in facing the fact of their mortality, it often seems imminent.

Having failed at some major personal or professional challenge, people in their fifties have found out they did not die from it. Therefore, in general, they are more efficient and effective in the way they go about their lives. Now, they give more time and attention to maintaining the body machinery. Mortality is no longer just a floating anxiety, it becomes a negotiation: "How long do I want to live? How much am I prepared to invest in my health and mental well being?"

(Reference: New Passages, Mapping your life across time by Gail Sheehy)

(Next week: Part 2 of a series on Serene Sixties)

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