The last of the Boomers -- those born in 1964 -- have now officially entered the decade that, for most of us, have heralded "Dem Changes" (as so eloquently characterized by the sixties band Electric Flag): the fifties. Those born during the heart of the baby boom (1955) can now look back at their last decade and say "Phew! What just happened? Who is that person staring back at me in the mirror? " or "I made it. Where's my La-Z-Boy?"
What makes the fifties be so damn grievously discombobulating?
''The 50s is a kind of fulcrum decade, a turning point in the aging process during which people, more sharply than before, are made to feel their age,'' David Karp, a sociologist at Boston College, wrote many years ago in The Gerontologist. While 51-year olds may say "oh yeah?", 59-year olds might say, "no sh*t!"
Here are just a few possible discombobulating factors:
First, chances are your parents, if they're still around, won't be around much longer. Those with parents that made babies in their late teens and early twenties might be the exception, but if we go by averages, chances are your parents will enter their eighties and depart them while you're in your fifties. Shuffling them comfortably into the afterlife can be so consuming as to be overwhelming, and it's during that time, whether you're caregiver #1, #2, #3 or just an occasional visitor, that time spent looking after yourself may get vaporized. Watch out! Once it's over and the original Breeders are gone, and you realize that you are now The Breeders, you may notice that the stress of the deathwatch has accelerated your own aging process. Open up the old photo album and take a look at a pic of your parents at age 55. Oh, hello!?
Chances are your kids are old enough to at least understand the disappearance of Grandma or Grandpa, again, if you're on the "average" path. There's also a good chance that your kids will either enter the workforce, or go to college, graduate and move out while you are in your fifties. Even if you continue to text with them several times a day, or they continue to bring their laundry home, or they keep using your credit card, you are now an empty nester. Aside from looking at your partner and saying "Now what?", you may be tempted to ditch the family digs and move into a double-wide. Take it slow. As the wise and wizened say, "we're on a journey" (or perhaps it's what the Talking Heads referred to as "The Road to Nowhere").
Now that both parents and kids are gone, you may decide to check in with yourself, maybe even get that long delayed surgery or at least a physical exam. Regardless of how fit you may be, the Fifties is decidedly the decade of diminishing returns. Strenuous exercise may now invite injury. Genetic gifts like high blood pressure, type II diabetes, amyloidosis, autoimmune disorders etc. may rear their ugly cells. The waistline grows from simply looking at cookies. And if you wait until you're sixty to get your back or your neck or your knees fixed, the chances of total recovery diminish. The stress of parents and kids disappearing doesn't help.
What about your career? Some of us moving into our sixties might say "what happened to my career?" 55 is considered retirement age in many companies, and even though you may feel like you're at the top of your game, packages for 50-somethings abound. There is simply no denying that despite the incredible amount of wisdom, knowledge, and expertise we have acquired over our many years of service, there is probably somebody who can quickly learn how to do our job, work twice as hard and be happy with half the pay. For many of us, the career transition is the bitterest pill we may have to swallow in our fifties. Even if the yellow brick road is stretched out before us and we have an opportunity to really, truly self-actualize after all these years of drudgery, it can be a rough change.
Let's see, so whaddawegot? Parents die, kids move out, you lose your job, your hair, your virility, your estrogen; you need any number of pills, salves, lotions, and braces to keep from spontaneously combusting or slipping into complete catatonia. Your friends start dying. Yikes!!
Ah, but you're a BOOMER! The last of the Boomers, no less. A child of the 60s to come of age in the 70s, a survivor of disco, Iran hostages, Reagan, the stained blue dress and the hanging chad. You've been part of the generation that has architected and driven the digital revolution. You have access to more opinions about how to survive your fifties than you could possibly absorb!
Which is to say, if humanity survives the next decade, this temporary discombobulation will be a memory soon enough. Even if all of the above comes to pass, as it has for me, one day you'll be celebrating your sixtieth with grace, aplomb, and enthusiasm, and maybe even a couple of grand babies to share your growing incoherent babble with in your future. Now, that's something to look forward to!