Life

Why It's Worth Looking at Your 50s as a "Second Adolescence"

5 min read

From our POV, the middle years of your life are something worth celebrating—and experts agree.
From our POV, the middle years of your life are something worth celebrating—and experts agree.

The transition from childhood to our teenage years to emerging adulthood is rife with change, right? It’s a time when we feel like we’re coming into our own and really discovering who we are—right alongside the physical changes of puberty.

But couldn't we make the argument that our midlife operates in a similar way? If we’re experiencing menopause, our bodies are certainly going through a very significant transition. As we enter a new phase of life, our emotional and mental landscape tends to evolve. And depending on the person, this might all coincide with major external changes: like becoming an empty nester or making the decision to retire, for example. (1)

Culture has (quite unfairly) taught us to characterize this time of major change as "midlife crisis"—and maybe some would point out that the palpable angst of our teen years feels like a "crisis" of its own accord. But much like the promise of emerging adulthood, perhaps it's time to reframe our middle years as a time of major opportunity: for growth, for reinvention, and even unparalleled freedom.

This much more positive outlook, after all, is far more congruent with reality. Recent research shows that our optimism actually reaches an all-time high in our mid-50s (2). Ritual’s own surveys with women in this age group showed that not only did most of them characterize this era in their lives as their favorite yet—they also still believe the best years are still to come.

It makes much more sense, then, that many experts are starting to relabel this stage of life as a "second adolescence"—or "middlescence."

What is “Middlescence?”

First coined by gerontologist, author, and speaker Barbara Waxman, “middlescence” describes a second “adolescence” experienced by many entering the “middle” years of their lives—that is, your 40s, 50s, and 60s. (3) As with our angsty teen years, it’s understandable that all the change of our midlife—physical mental, and emotional—feels like a lot to handle. But one key advantage those of us entering our “second adolescence” have over emerging adults? That would be the kind of perspective that only comes from years of life experience. Psychologist Heather Silvestri, PhD, (who happens to be entering this phase herself), argues that when we learn to harness this wisdom in the right way, it can completely change our outlook on middle age—and even allow us to feel excited and energized about everything that’s still ahead.

“If engaged affirmatively and with openness, the transitions of menopause [and middle age] can actually set the stage for a new lease on life,” she says.

But first, hormones

Before we get into some expert advice on reframing middle age, we’d be remiss to compare your 50s to your teens without diving into some Hormones 101.

Let’s talk estrogen specifically, and how it pertains to a woman’s life cycle. When we go through puberty in our early-to-mid teens, estrogen spikes for the first time. Aside from regular fluctuations from our menstrual cycle (and then a larger rise should we choose to get pregnant), these estrogen levels tend to stay pretty level throughout our adult lives—until we enter perimenopause, the phase leading up to menopause. (4)

During this time, estrogen and progesterone levels start to dip, and your period tends to become less frequent. When you’ve gone an entire year without getting a period, that’s menopause—and you enter the postmenopausal phase of your life.

There are obviously a lot of physical changes to consider with this transition—in addition to fluctuating hormone levels, your nutrient needs shift, too. But that’s not even to mention some of the emotional and mental aspects of this change, which are totally understandable when your body is going through such changes.

A new outlook

The first step to any major transition, says Silvestri, is making room for all the individual feelings that come up with it. “A woman’s experience of menopause is absolutely shaped by her personal mental set, constellation of life experiences, and culturally salient ideas about women and aging, as well as her individual bio-physio blueprint,” she says. In short: It’s different for everyone, so there’s not exactly a one-size-fits-all approach. (1)

But one tactic that might feel helpful is thinking back to your teenage experience—sure, there may have been a lot of angst and uncertainty involved. But chances are you also felt energized by all the promise of the years ahead: The prospect of the future and figuring out your place in the world felt as exciting as it did vaguely terrifying. What if we thought of the years after menopause in a similar way—with the added bonus of life experience and a stronger sense of self to help fuel that positive outlook? It’s a theme we’ve seen among some of the coolest women we’ve talked to about negotiating this life stage. They all have different paths that have led them to where they are. Some of them have reached the peak of their careers, or realized that they felt more empowered to launch their own business. We spoke to Dian Griesel, for example, whose modeling career took off at age 55. Susan Feldman launched popular decor platform One Kings Lane at 53, sold it several years later, and, now in her 60s, is growing a media platform around the topic of aging. (Feldman, for what it’s worth, directly credits her age and experience for her success.)

Then there’s Angelique Miles, who embodies middlescence in a particularly poignant way: After being aged out of her position as a successful music industry executive in her 40s, she began working out as a way to cope with the transition. Suddenly, she realized her hobby had turned into a passion, and she quickly leveraged it into a career opportunity: Now, Miles has reinvented herself as a fitness expert and is happier than ever, all because she asked herself what she really wanted to do everyday.

The bottom line? “It is critical to realize that the choices you made in your twenties and thirties have shaped, but do not define you,” says Silvestri. Think of it this way: Decades of life and understanding have prepared you for this moment. And that’s more than we can say for our teenage selves.

References:

  1. Afridi, I. (2017). Psychological and Social Aspects of Menopause. A Multidisciplinary Look at Menopause. doi: 10.5772/intechopen.69078
  2. Schwaba, T., Robins, R., Sanghavi, P. H., & Bleidorn, W. (2019). Optimism Development Across Adulthood and Associations with Positive and Negative Life Events. doi: 10.31234/osf.io/s6x87
  3. Barbara Waxman: Middlescence, Gerontologist, Executive Coach. (n.d.). Retrieved from Barbara Waxman.com
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Perimenopause: Rocky road to menopause. Retrieved from Harvard Health

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