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Why Fifty Is Not the New Forty or What Is Middle Age Anyway?

You hear people say it all the time--"fifty is the new forty". It is usually said by people about to hit the half century mark and it usually means they are not happy about time marching on. Fifty is the new forty is a fear-based phrase uttered by those who are whistling in the dark. I have the credentials to say this, by the way, having passed both my fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays and now having reached the serenity of acceptance that only membership in AARP and a Medicare card can bring.

It is true that people live longer these days and that the number of people reaching their 100th birthday is on the rise worldwide. But that rise is slow and gradual and living to 100 is still a rare event. Living to age 65 and beyond, however is not. The 2010 census indicates that life expectancy in the USA is definitely on the increase. For men, it has increased from 51.5 years for someone born in 1900 to 80.1 years for someone born in 2001.The stats are even better for women.

So there, you say? Then fifty really is the new forty. You are only as old as you feel, right? Not so fast-- put down that gym bag and postpone the plastic surgery and listen up. Fifty year old's may have better bodies, more energy, and look younger than they used to, but inside, fifty is still the same old fifty and the fifties are still the same pivotal decade for both men and women that they always were.

Turning 50 is a big deal. It is the moment when most of us really get that we too are going to get old and(yes, it is unthinkable)... we too are actually going to die someday. The end of the trail suddenly looms up ahead with startling clarity. Where did it come from? How did it happen? Most of us are surprised and just not ready-- Fifty? Really? Where did the time go? Oh well, " Fifty is the new forty" We comfort ourselves with that thought and we hope against hope that it is true.

Why Fifty is Not the New Forty

People age at different rates both physically and emotionally so it is hard to come up with a one size fits all formula for exactly when middle age begins, or when it ends for that matter.. For most people forty probably still technically represents the middle of life-- 40 down and 40 to go if they live to be 80. It is when people start taking stock of their health, actually consider going to high school and college reunions, and may even start to notice aches, pains and weight gain enough to make some lifestyle changes.

However we age physically, somewhere between 40 and 50 most of us hear the dark flutter of the wings of our own mortality in the background. It's a sound most of us try not to pay attention to..... an awareness we try to avoid. The first signs of physical aging tend to appear in the decade between 40 and 50. These include but are not limited to:

  • extra pounds creeping on each year
  • more belly fat
  • a need for reading glasses
  • grey hair and/or thinning hair
  • loss of strength and flexibility
  • gradual loss of fertility
  • problems with sexual performance

Forty starts the ball rolling, but fifty is the birthday that really brings it all home. By fifty most of us have either already lost a parent or are dealing with parents who need increasing care and attention. Meanwhile, our own children( if we have had them) are growing up or have already flown the coop. They may have already made us grandparents -- or not.

In our fifties some unsettling things often happen. We lose our jobs to younger people who can do them better and cheaper. Our sight and hearing are really not what they used to be and we are more interested in the local obituaries than the wedding and birth announcements. People start calling us " sir" and "ma'm" We no longer recognize the celebrities and rock stars gracing the covers of supermarket tabloids and we have trouble holding onto being hip. No-- fifty is serious business. It is a birthday that burns. I gave myself a big party for my fiftieth, but other friends of mine slunk away from the big five oh and began to lie about their age.... Fifty is a very personal and intense birthday for everyone and it is not-- definitely NOT the new forty.

Do you get where I am going with this? While good health can make one's forties, fifties and beyond happier and healthier, it cannot turn back the clock. A fifty year old woman who bears a child through in vitro fertilization is always going to be fifty years older than her offspring and may well die before the child comes of age. A sixty year old man who impregnates his 30 year old trophy wife with the help of Viagra has not magically become thirty something by that act. He too will probably die before the child he fathered has reached its majority.

As long as everybody recognizes this and plans for it, no problem. But the point is that looking and feeling young does not actually make you young and certainly does not confer immortality. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel younger. Three cheers for Botox, plastic surgery, Hair Club for Men and hair dye for women, vitamins, working out and even sheep glands from some spa in Switzerland. Just don't think that these things can do things that they can't. You are still you and your birthday is still the same.


Nobody blows a whistle and says " middle age begins at forty" and nobody sounds a gong when you turn sixty to say " middle age is now over and old age has begun" It doesn't work that way. It's all very individual. Some men buy little red sports cars and run off to South America with their twenty year old secretaries when they are 45. Others do it at the age of 60 and still others not at all. Some women dye their hair, get facelifts and hormone treatments and lie about their age because the idea of losing all that female sexual power and becoming invisible to men, is more than they can bear. Others are mother earth at forty and stunning old ladies and still others simply manage to negotiate every stage with grace and style.

In the end, middle age is the period between youth and old age and nothing more, and that period is definable only in individual terms. There is a part of all of us that is eternal-- that is the same as it has been from early childhood and there is another part that is the accumulated experience of life that changes from year to year and from day to day.

I know one thing for sure, that young, old. or in the middle, life is a wonderful banquet to be savored and enjoyed in the moment. Today's joys and travails will not come again and all of us are on the same train and will eventually arrive at the same station.

The leading cause of death is birth( as a good friend of mine, now deceased, used to say) so relax and enjoy the ride.


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© 2012 Roberta Kyle

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