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Why Do Our 50s Suck So Hard?

It’s not just you who feels that way. But there’s good news about what’s coming next.

Birthday cake toppers of a 5 and a 0, appearing to melt away with sad face drawn on it
Paul Spella/Getty

Our 50s were supposed to be the age when things got easier: settled careers, settled marriages, settled finances. But for many of us, it’s been one big, fat disappointment: Just 3 percent of people in their 50s feel like they're living their "best possible life," according to new data from AARP and National Geographic.

Our 50s are essentially the eighth grade of adulthood, a weird way station between two worlds: We’re too old to play with the young kids, yet not old enough to hang with the seniors.

The comparison isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Both involve major life transitions. For eighth graders, school and social responsibilities abruptly get more intense and demanding. Bo Burnham, director of the movie Eighth Grade, once described it as “trying to build a parachute as you’re falling.”

The same is true when you’re in your 50s. Even if you’re making a good living, you’re facing the crush of college bills, the need to support your aging parents and the growing panic that you haven’t saved nearly enough for retirement. “These are economic strains many people never anticipated,” says Deborah Carr, author of Worried Sick: How Stress Hurts Us and How to Bounce Back.

Our bodies are changing in alarming ways as well. We’re not scrawny, acne-plagued adolescents suddenly sprouting hair in weird places, but our hormones are undergoing a new phase of chaos, afflicting us with things like thinning hair, stubborn bellies and temperamental libidos.

Jeff Post, a real estate agent from Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent the first half of his 50s paying for graduate school for his daughter and helping his parents after they were both diagnosed with cancer. It often felt like “spinning plates,” he says.

At least a 13-year-old can daydream about turning 18 someday, but do any 50-year-olds daydream about aging into the future? “Seventy is when you get all your energy and good looks back,” said no 50-year-old ever.

There’s a reason the rate of suicide is skyrocketing among middle-aged men. We’ve been conditioned to believe that our best days are behind us. Pop culture constantly reminds us that aging men are miserable, especially among Gen Xers. Less, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Andrew Sean Greer, is all about a Gen X guy turning 50 and realizing it blows. Our generation, the author writes, “often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it?”

The answer to that question might be just this: Be patient. It gets better.

In that same AARP/National Geographic survey, positive quality of life climbed to 76 percent among men in their 60s, and the numbers keep going up from there.

What changes? Those big milestones are behind you: Your kids are out of college (and hopefully out of the home), and your parents have either died or have established care. You’re no longer the one everyone depends on.

But the biggest change is what’s happening in your head. Older guys are “more likely to roll with the punches,” Carr says. “They realize they can cope with whatever comes along because they’ve been doing it for 65 to 70 years.” 

When Jerry Seinfeld turned 60, he told ESPN he wasn’t looking forward to an action-packed life ahead. “If you want to kite surf down the Amazon, go ahead,” he said. “I’m going to crack open a beer and watch a ball game.”

Post, now 63, found a similar contentment after the storms of his 50s. He and his wife are selling their house and moving into a condo that will require less upkeep. They’re looking forward to more leisure together, more time “with our feet on the beach.” Life, he says, is “definitely better — without a doubt.”