Being over 50 is not a moral failing. Hitting life's halfway point is certainly not something to be ashamed of or to try and hide. Yet in looking at magazine advertisements and articles aimed at the boomer demographic, it would not be hard to conclude that the post-50 years were one long desperate attempt to recapture the better days of youth, as if we had carelessly left them behind.
It turns out that for most of us, those pre-50 days were not better, by almost any measure, and advertisers should probably rewrite their copy to read, "30 is the new 50."
There is an apologetic quality, an almost defensive posture, to much of what is written about midlife. Yet it is misplaced because research confirms that the decline in our overall happiness, that begins at age 18 and continues steadily, reverses course as we enter our sixth decade. In every country, every income group, whether employed or not, a parent or not, the downward drift in our happiness levels reverses course just before our 50th birthdays.
We need to stop worrying about the second half of life as if it is a problem because the real problem is what went before. Let's start by getting rid of a few myths by reaching back 20 or 30 years and looking at what life was really like.
I will concede that we looked better 20 years ago, but really, that is all I am going to concede.
So instead of looking in the mirror, let's look at the research:
Twenty or 30 years ago we had less money, either because we were just beginning a career or we were overwhelmed with the cost of a young family. Even after the kids left, many of us paid tuitions and offered loans to get our kids on their feet. The post-50 years may be the first time that the kids are off the family payroll and it shows up in the wealth gap between younger and older Americans, which has never been greater. The net worth of the average U.S. household headed by someone 65 or older is an astounding 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35. While more money may not equal happiness and we may all have hazy memories of being young, poor and happy together, the lack of financial resources once kids are born can be a source of real stress and dismay.
We had less time at 30. There is nothing that drains every hour of the day like small children. Whether working full time or as a stay-at-home parent, the demands from small children know no bounds. For a trip down memory lane, read any parenting site for tales of parents desperate for sleep.
The story is the same in the workplace; as we get older, we work fewer hours, have more control over the time we spend at work and are in more senior positions.
Technology has made all of our lives better, more interesting and expansive. I was in a Starbucks yesterday listening to two guys complain about the speed of their Internet connection, which one's iPad still had a signal during the recent hurricane, and which new phones they were going to buy. Both men looked like they were going on 80. Technology is the great equalizer. Keeping in touch with a lifetime of friends through the channels technology affords expands our world and enriches our lives.
We cannot eat like we used to, but the truth is we never really could. Let's be honest, the days when we could eat anything we wanted ended long before 30. A body impervious to caloric intake is a gift the heavens lavishes on those who wear braces and are still growing taller.
We're more confident. We may have looked more confident at 25 or 30, with the gloss of sex appeal that nature bestows on the young, but we weren't. Like our youthful beauty, the confidence was just a veneer. Research shows that we are more content in late middle age in part because many of the anxieties and insecurities of our youth have been laid to rest. It is easy to forget how bad it felt when we worried more, were angier and had less control over our emotions.
Our happiness is greater. Duke researchers studied over 350,000 adults aged 18 to 85 and found that 70-year-olds were happier than 30-year-olds. It appears that 46 is the inflection point and that, on average, we get less happy as we approach that age and increasingly happy after it. The Economist magazine points out that, "Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure -- vitality, mental sharpness and looks -- they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness." And I, for one, think that is a pretty good trade.
We have experienced great love. By midlife, many of us have have known the profound joy of loving someone deeply over decades. And while our early reckless days of romance are drenched in nostalgia, wasn't it all one long search for someone with whom to share our lives? We have born children and bourne losses. We may miss parents who are not longer with us, or siblings or friends, but some of those we have loved most in this world, namely our children, did not exist in our youth. The love of a parent can be one of life's most beautiful experiences, and I would not want to travel back to a time before my children existed.
In addition to time, money, confidence and our partners/spouses and kids, what else have we gained on our travels? Education, experience and, dare I say, wisdom. While tight abs may seem like a lofty goal, I am not sure I would swap them for these big three.
Perhaps I was a bit too quick to dismiss all of the advantages of youth. If there is one thing we lose, the thing I feel the loss of most acutely, it is that sense of infinite possibility. It is hard not to feel a longing for the days when all of life lay before us and anything seemed possible. So much can and will be accomplished in the second half of life, but only a fool would believe that all doors are still open to us. But in reality, not all doors were open to us in our youth and too many options, any social scientist will tell you, doesn't make us happier but simply leaves us overwhelmed and confused.
The next time I read something telling me how to get back to my 30-year-old self I am going to remember that life after 50 is just life, and by almost every measure, better than what went before.