How many times have you heard the celebrant of a 50th birthday say — with irony, of course — “Does this mean I am a grownup now?” (By the way, the proper answer is: “No, never.”)
The real irony is that the best prospect for feeling more lighthearted is, in fact, crossing into that post-50 stage. Studies show that as we age, the less stressed and generally happier we become. W
e are so busy appreciating the big stuff that we can’t bother sweating the small stuff. This is a new stage of life — second adulthood, if you will.
But getting there can be surprisingly confusing. During our 50s or 60s, most of us experience an extended and fraught period of change, choices and false starts.
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Very much like that other major life transition, adolescence.
The many parallels with moving from childhood to adulthood should be reassuring to those on their way to second adulthood. We are in the process of growing up again, only this time we have the wisdom, the experience, the confidence and the wherewithal to make the most of the opportunity and recognize the unprecedented opportunities ahead. Here are just seven signs of second adolescence:
1. You ask: “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
That is the question bedeviling teenagers way before they have much expertise in living. We, on the other hand, can call upon what we know to take us across new frontiers. Statistically, we can expect longer and healthier lives, making the average span of first adulthood — about 25 years — the same as the second. Too long to twiddle thumbs, long enough to get more done.
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2. Raging hormones
Like adolescents, our chemistry undergoes a major redesign. One side effect is particularly interesting. For women, when estrogen levels go down, the process “unmasks” the testosterone that has been there all along, making women somewhat more assertive. At the same time, male testosterone levels go down, making men a little less assertive.
The suggestion of hormonal convergence has many happy possibilities. For example, sex experts find that women become more forthcoming about what gives them pleasure, while men become more anxious to please. Also, women are less and less interested in the details of domesticity, while men frequently become happily engaged in cooking and homemaking.
3. Behaving badly
This is especially true of women who feel liberated by the discovery that “I don’t care what people think anymore.” Making trouble and talking back, once punishable offenses, become tempting behaviors.
Men, perhaps because their aggressive drives are damped down, become less intimidated by conventions of manhood — competitiveness, stiff upper lip, control. For them, bad behavior is reconsidering the rat race, getting silly with grandkids or driving within the speed limit.
4. Making and breaking relationships
As teenagers, we went though passionate loves and hates on the way to figuring out how friendship, intimacy and family work. We are now reevaluating relationships with parents, friends and partners (the divorce rate spikes around now). We are recalibrating some, shedding others and zeroing in on those precious few we want to pay attention to going forward.
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5. Out-of-character behavior
Suddenly people who think they know you are taken aback by some of our teen-like antics. “That’s not like you!” they exclaim in bewilderment. We are as surprised as they are by an incomprehensible impulse to take a risk — taking up the piano or skydiving or letting the gray grow out. More and more, we ask: Why not?
Teenagers are in a hurry to get on to the next exciting experience. But while they think they have all the time in the world, we know we don’t. Driven by that sense of urgency, we triage the demands on our time — quitting organizations that are bogged down in their own process, dropping a book if we aren’t hooked by page 60, finding random shopping “a waste of time.”
When the kids say this, it is their insolent way of signaling that they don’t take much seriously. Our version, which is more mellow, is that most things aren’t that serious. Nothing matters — success or failure, petty resentments, the letdowns of an aging body — except what really matters.
As we age we become clearer about our priorities and non-negotiable values and slough off the rest. The half-full glass becomes a blessing, because the content is so precious.