As someone well into my fifties, the popular aphorism “50 is the new 15” makes me laugh. As a therapist who writes about the psychology of aging, it baffles me. Who are we kidding? Sure, being 50 today means something different than it did for our parents or grandparents — more of us are fit, active and expect to remain that way well into our 80s and 90s — but 50 to me, well, is simply the “new 50!”
What does make sense to me is comparing 50 to 15 in terms of the transitions that take place during these stages of life. There are a number of interesting parallels between what happens during our teens and in middle age — both physically and psychologically — and understanding them is important. The similarities can help remind us that these are life stages that pass and navigating through them is what allows us to emerge with new perspectives.
Below are five ways that 50 can be compared to 15.
Them: Both boys and girls welcome in adolescence with changing hormones. Girls start to menstruate. Their bodies become rounder and developed. Boys begin to show body hair. Their voices change. Hormones can impact a teen’s skin, causing acne on their faces and other unexpected places. Sex drive comes on suddenly and strong, making adolescences seem driven by desire. Their bodies and emotions feel out of control as they undergo hormonal change.
Us: Mid-life men and women experience shifts in our hormones too. As estrogen drops, women face the onset of menopause. Night sweats and hot flashes begin. Men’s testosterone levels change too, sometimes resulting in loss of energy, concentration and potency. Most midlife men and women say they feel differences in their libido, the texture of their skin and hair. Hormonal shifts can bring on emotional swings too, leaving some feeling irritable and depressed during this time.
Them: The pace at which adolescents grow and change is highly variable. A teenage boy can have a huge growth spurt and sport a full beard in early adolescence, while another remains small and baby faced until end of high school. Teenage girls can develop early and become shapely, while others remain tomboyish. Most girls stand a head taller than the guys during middle school years. Almost all go through an awkward stage as their bodies feel out of control and undergo change.
Us: Mid-lifers’ bodies change too, and in variable ways. Metabolism generally slows and weight gain is common. But weight loss also occurs, sometimes as a result of a loss of appetite. Muscle tone softens, bones become more brittle and osteoporosis can begin. Women first notice these biological changes most often on their faces, as we see wrinkles, turkey necks, flabby arms and drooping breasts. Men feel these changes when they notice loss in strength, stamina and energy. Both become aware of hair beginning to gray, which for most occurs by age 50, but can start even earlier.
Our Bodies, Our Selves
Them: Adolescents can become self-centered and appear preoccupied with their own needs. It’s as if a switch gets flicked and suddenly their friends, music, clothes and makeup take on greater importance over all else. Young girls are often fixated on their self-image — constantly checking themselves in the mirror, flipping through magazines and obsessed with fashion. After having little interest in their appearance, teenage boys can become focused on looking hip and cool, or building their bodies through sports or working out. Teens generally seem unable to step outside themselves to notice that anyone else exists or matters.
Us: As mature as we think of ourselves at 50, many of us become as self-absorbed as our teen kids are. It’s almost as if we are thrown back in time, as our insecurities about our changing appearance are revived. We start looking in the mirror, focused now on wrinkles and age spots rather than acne and break-outs. We check out those magazine ads and cosmetic counters for new anti-aging products, hoping some miracle cure will control the changes we feel. Our peers become important again, as we feel connected to others who are going through the same experience.
Separation and Individuation
Them: Adolescents face the challenge of separating from their families as they move from being teens to adults. Many leave home to start college or new jobs. They are eager to move on, yet anxious about their impending independence. It’s why adolescents often hold tightly to each other. They may be rebellious against authority and parental control, but they also cling to childhood. Their adult identities are individuating and transforming.
Us: Mid-lifers are also challenged as we separate from our grown children and our elderly parents. After years caring for kids, some face an empty nest as our youngest leaves home. Some who have cared for elderly parents or had them living with us have to say goodbye as they pass. Like adolescents, we struggle to find new identities, both yearning to turn the clock back and anxious about what comes next.
Defiance and Avoidance
Them: How many teenagers have been heard saying, “You don’t understand, ” or “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.” Most believe they know and we don’t. They react to their physical and emotional changes with defiance and/or avoidance — engaging in sexual experimentation, impulsive, compulsive and addictive behaviors. Teens go to bed at all hours, sleep until midday. They overeat. They stop eating. These actions can reflect a combination of loss of control and the wish to maintain control.
Us: As we experience our midlife changes, we too feel the loss of control and the desire to regain it. We may not appear as openly rebellious, as teens do, but a ‘midlife’ crisis can be quite defiant — running off with younger mates, making impulsive purchases and undergoing radical transformations. Sometimes we hide our feelings — using alcohol and drugs to mollify them. Anorexia and bulimia rise during midlife, which can also be expressions of feeling out of control, or the desire to gain it.
In various ways, we see that both adolescents and mid-lifers are faced with navigating through periods of great transition. In youth, reactions to these changes can appear unruly and defiant — against anyone and everyone that gets in the way of growing up. In midlife we fight a different force — the ravages of growing older — and our reactions most often look less dramatic. In her latest book, I Think I love You, best-selling author Alison Pearson’s character negates equating these life stages, saying, ‘rebellions are wasted on the young. What the hell have they got to rebel against? You and I, on the other hand, have a wide range of frustrations, disappointments and resentments, accumulated over many decades.”
Surely, 50 is not 15. Equating them can be aggravating. But if adolescents and mid-lifers could view the ways that 15 and 50 are also alike, we not only can appreciate the challenges inherent in both life stages, but we may end up understanding each other better as well.
What do you think of the popular phrase, “50 is the new 15?”
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. “Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change” (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. She can be found on http://www.VivianDiller.com.