The Fifties – Snoring or Soaring?

Let’s talk about the forgotten 50s. There’s not much work out there that focuses on the developmental psychology of these years, but their significance for a generative later life is profound.

Through your 20s you’re humming along, pretty fast-paced, hopefully having a variety of experiences and plenty of fun in the service of developing a personality. Don’t narrow your horizons too early.

Your 30s are busy, busy, busy. You know exactly what’s needed of you because the demands are in your face – family and work and lots of bills to keep you moving.

The 40s. Oh dear. You’ll need an existential crisis or two to find out who you really are. That little bit more breathing space can be such a pain. It takes you inward. It makes you discover holes inside that didn’t exist before. It’s time to really dig down into your values, take a few risks and walk your talk. If you’re not moving in the direction of authenticity in your forties then it might be a mid-life crisis for you. A little more booze can dull the anxiety for a while. Either way, don’t be too concerned with looking like you’ve got your act together. You’ve probably got a new act or two in you that you haven’t discovered yet.

Then the 50s. After the struggles – and perhaps inner riches – of the forties you think you’d get a break eh? Well, maybe you feel pretty self-satisfied for a few years, but only until the mid-50s. And then there’s this creeping discontent. It doesn’t make any rational sense but you somehow feel you just can’t do this much longer, whatever this is. If you scratch a bit beneath the surface you discover it’s about meaning. Sure, we can look forward to grandchildren or nice South Australian red wine with friends on Friday evenings, perhaps a big trip and more free time. But… are they enough? We might not know it yet, but the enough is a big hurdle. You see, there’s a battle going on inside.

It’s too simplistic to say it’s a struggle between our comfort-loving self and our wish-to-make-a-meaningful-contribution self. It’s more that this is the time that our life instinct hits crisis point. This is a term coined by Freud. It’s about motivation and preservation of life, but it’s different from our drives. It arises from within. Not an intellectual thing. Not even an emotional thing. It goes deeper. It’s about connecting with our destiny, if I may use such a term. It arises unbidden and we ignore it at our peril.

There are two major things we need to get into gear and they both take courage. If we can borrow terms from Carl Jung, we can say there are two key archetypes designed to guide us through this time. An archetype represents a universal pattern or way of being. The ones that we really need to draw upon in our 50s can be called the Creator and the Destroyer. Many people in their 60s will tell us that life exists on a whole new plateau once we get through the hump of the late 50s. (Interestingly, rates of depression are at their highest through the 40s and 50s and at their lowest in the 60s). This newly found energy is a creative spark, a drive that enables us to feel purposeful and excited about our connection to life. We are in sync with who we really are and with something bigger than us. This is the Creator at work. We all have it in us. But…

In order for the Creator to flourish, we also need to engage the Destroyer. This is the part of us that can recognize the old patterns – of behavior, structures, personal baggage, material things – that hold us back from creating new things or ways of being. It’s also the Destroyer that enables us to let these things go. Again, it takes courage. Let elegant simplicity guide your days. The Destroyer not only wants us to think outside the box, it wants us to know that there is no box.
Cardboard mockup frame of a rocketship held up by a right hand in a window.

These two in balance – letting go of that which no longer serves us and creating that which connects us to something greater – are what’s asked of us through the late 50s.

And one more thing. Start having conversations that matter with people that matter. You are not alone in your struggles, your questions or your joys. Start connecting on deeper levels.

Godspeed.