Every time we see those Progressive Insurance ads where Dr. Rick teaches people our age how not to become their parents, my 13-year-old son laughs. Meanwhile, I scowl, and then I think, Scowling is exactly what my parents would do.
The commercials are meant as a joke … I think. But I’m 51 years old, and the joke has at least a ring of truth.
So I called my friend Daniel Levitin, a 65-year-old neuroscientist and author of 2020’s Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, to find out how (or if) we’re turning into our parents and how to stop it.
These, he says, are our challenges:
Reduced social inhibitions
Our amygdala shrinks after 60, Daniel says. That sounds really bad, especially if the amygdala is our penis. Luckily, the amygdala is merely part of our brains.
“It’s the social salience center,” Daniel says. When it gets smaller, it reduces our inhibitions. Which explains a pops concert I took my dad to at Lincoln Center where he hummed along to Cole Porter loud enough to wake me up.
I have no idea if my grandmother farted in public because of a weakened sphincter muscle or a shrunken amygdala, but I do know that she didn’t seem to care after she did. Which was nice for her, but less nice for everyone else at the Fort Lauderdale Walmart.
Not caring what other people think will be even more acute for Generation X than it was for our parents. After all, we started out not caring what people thought. At the most crucial point in our mating lives, this is how we chose to present ourselves:
Imagine what we’re going to wear out to dinner when we’re 70.
Resistance to change
Our neural development is slowing down rapidly. “In the first 20 years of life, our brains were hungrily soaking up all the information they could,” Daniel says. But by our 50s, learning slows down and becomes more deliberate.
Since new stuff is hard to learn, we avoid it. “My grandmother referred to Black people as ‘colored’ in the 1960s,” Daniel tells me. “I said, ‘Grandma, they have a right to be called whatever they want.’ And then she’d say, ‘They’re just fussy.’ A whole bunch of people my age are saying this about the LGBTQ community. They just got used to gay people. Now nonbinary? Trans? I’m not going to ask your pronouns. That’s just too far.”
But it’s worth trying anyway. Both Daniel and I have begrudgingly adopted new social rules. We text first to ask if we can call. We don’t leave voicemails. “Emails have gotten to be an old people’s medium,” he says. “Like when I first went to college, my grandmother sent me a telegram.”
When we reach middle age, we yearn for the purpose-driven life that we had when our kids needed us and magazines still mattered. So we give unsolicited advice to anyone who’ll listen.
“We feel like they’d benefit from our advice and would be a fool not to listen,” Daniel says. “The problem is, no one learns anything unless they discover it for themselves. No one is going to be able to tell you how to divide a triangle. You have to get out your compass and your divider and do it.”
Not keeping up with technological changes
Such as believing students still use compasses and dividers.
One reason we get socially awkward is we stop paying attention. “When you were 13 and you did something you’d never done before, everything was so sensory: the taste, the sights, the sounds, the smell. When you get older you get more in your head,” Daniel says.
To combat this, we have to engage in activities that force us to interact with the outside world. Being with other people is key. Physical activities also help. “I know a couple of people who fly private planes, and it keeps them young because you can’t be in your head while you’re flying,” Daniel says.
For legal reasons, I’m not suggesting you take up flying. I’m thinking more along the lines of pickleball.
Being around other old people
In other countries, generations mingle, eating tapas in the streets or at neighborhood barbecues. Americans segregate by age in kindergarten and never stop. Which isn’t good when we get old. Being around young people is how we’re going to learn how much to tip, and not to call weed “pot.”
If the goal is to be a member of society at large and not just of Margaritaville, we can’t solely live in a society of Xers.
After hanging up with Daniel, I realized that he was using me. I’m 14 years younger than him, thereby gifting him with my youthful insights and hep fashion trends. But, in return, he taught me about the amygdala. With his knowledge and my connection to the youth scene, I bet we can keep each other from using gym locker room hair dryers on our testicles.