Turning 51: entering the quinquagenarian age

Yesterday I turned 51 years old.  After writing about a milestone birthday last year, I thought I’d follow up this year.  Consider it an attempt to look at one’s life head on, or a snapshot of a certain stage in life, or an experiment in autobiography.

So where do I stand, this side of the half-century mark?  I want to look at the past year, and ahead.

51… it’s strange, as it means I am now in my fifties, in that new decade, that mode of life, that phase.  I’m not sure what to make of it.  My 30s and 40s were a bit more accessible as I waded in, being about real adulthood and middle age, respectively.  The 50s feels like my 20s, an amorphous cloud of getting older.

Talking to people also in their 50s doesn’t help much.  Around half are deeply concerned with their (as they see it) impending retirement, which doesn’t work for me.  For one, I’m still not convinced I’ll be able to retire (not enough money, the chance of social service cutbacks).  For another, these people speak longingly of their post-work (or post full time work) life, mentally withdrawing from their present concerns either implicitly or explicitly.  “Ah, I won’t have to worry about [important thing X] because I’ll be retired by them,” is a common refrain, expressed with mixture of awkwardness and delight.  I can’t connect with that, since I’m so deeply immersed in my professional life.

The other half say little about being in their 50s, and instead just keep going.  Sometimes they mention getting older as a general thing, not tied to a specific life epoch.  I feel more sympathy with this point of view, but don’t learn much.

Instead of talking with peers, I can compare the quinquagenarian reality against cultural expectations. So far some things about heading past 50 are not far removed from what I’ve been led to expect.  Others veer from the norm.

The fifties are supposed to be an acme of professional success… or the opposite.  If the retirement age is 65, this is the last gloriously productive time for some people and in some fields.  Here’s when one can become a sought-after expert, or the bitter elder complaining about how much better things were done in their time.  Here’s when you can get shunted aside or elevated to power.

As an independent, I’ve experienced both sides of this.  Not being part of an institution, I don’t get to deal with office politics, which is definitely a blessing, but I do experience it refracted through the work I do with institutions.  I’ve been approached as an expert, which is gratifying, and also ignored, which can be infuriating.  Probably I should expect more of this for the next nine years.

As part of professional life I’m making more stuff.  Besides this blog (which is coming up on 1,000 posts!), I write articles, book chapters, and books.  I create the monthly FTTE report for around 1,900 subscribers. I make/facilitate/cat-herd the weekly Future Trends Forum, which yields a massive YouTube playlist (coming up on 100 recordings).  I take and share photos (Flickr, Instagram).  Over the past year I organized a lot of this work under the Future of Education Observatory header.  And the podcast is germinating.  Making stuff is something I want to do, as I wrote a year ago, and I enjoy it immensely.  So this is good.  No sign of slowing down.

51, by Alan Doll


On a different front, it’s amazing to see my children in the world.  Our youngest is at college now, and the eldest working in DC.  They are entering into adulthood, which still boggles and delights me.

Hitting the fifties naturally makes me (and most of us) think of health issues, and I hesitate at this point.  I don’t want to be one of stereotypical Those Old People Who Talk About Medical Stuff All The Time (TM).  And I still hesitate at writing about myself (is this a GenX thing?).  But, forging on, for the curious: I still lift weights, typically a daily combo of pull-ups and kettlebell exercises.  I work on the exercise bike every day while reading, or listening to podcasts, working on laptop, or watching a video.  This is satisfying.  I haven’t detected any loss of strength or dexterity, even when navigating sheets of Vermont ice.

There aren’t any signs of memory loss or cognitive impairment.  Instead, I find myself capable of diving more deeply into more memories for greater amounts of time, simply because there are more of them to explore.

Yet red lights are starting to wink on the biometric dashboard.  After a lifetime of 20-20 vision, my eyeballs are starting to betray me.  I’m having a hard time with small print, and can only read on screens, not on paper, late at night.  Apparently the ocular flesh is declining. Optometry and appliances await (and I will happily take suggestions and advice).

My BMI remains high, around 37, despite months of reduced diet and continuous exercise.  Part of this is due to maintaining a weightlifter’s muscle mass, and partly because BMI is silly, but still, I resemble a bear in many ways, not all good.  I’m not sure what to do on this front. At the same time infections, colds, and other illnesses are persisting longer than they used to.  I think (but am not sure) that I also catch them more frequently than I used to.

These last bits are partly due to my punishing work schedule.  Unchanged from last year is my 60-70-hour/week routine, which includes a great deal of travel: one to six trips per month, ranging from regional to transnational.  Also unchanged is the combination of demands: demands from clients (hooray!) and demands from the budget (erm).

I have tried several approaches to reduce this insane schedule.  I raised my rates once more; demand persists, which is flattering, I admit.  I have lobbied clients for doing more  virtual events, but most would rather pay more for the face-to-face experience, which is also flattering.  I fear that my Vermont location, with lame “broadband”, plays a role here.

For readers outside the United States, know that part of the reason for this working madness is working to pay for medical expenses, both current and prospective.   As an independent, I can’t draw on cost savings achieved by institutions – even smaller ones – that realize economies of scale.  We have to buy insurance at higher rates.  Another reason for this manic work routine is unusually American: paying off student debts for three people (although hopefully my daughter will start addressing hers with a new job).  Financialization is not an abstraction, but is instead very personal.

This work schedule is sickening me.  It will likely, at some point, kill me.

51 by Bart Maguire

What else should we expect from living aged 50-59?

I’m told we’ll become more attached to human relationships, and this seems to be the case.  I feel more deeply connected to my dear wife than ever before, for one.  Friends mean a great deal to me, too.   Colleagues and professional/political allies loom ever larger.  I’m trying to spend more time in person, organizing meetups on the road.

The flip side of deepening relationship interest is rising bitterness over relationship slights and problems.  Over the past year I’ve lost two friends to, well, themselves and their foolishness, and both losses still gnaw at me.  What I perceive as professional attacks or slights gall me, even years later.  And silences from people I thought I had a connection to – emails not replied to, questions unanswered, work disregarded – grate on my nerves more than ever.  Sometimes it’s hard to get away from that anger and frustration.

All of this leads me to go against today’s grain and devote more, not less time to social media.  Remember that I don’t belong to a university, and that my wife and I live in a very remote, underpopulated area.  Social media – and I mean that in the broadest sense, as in old Web 2.0, including podcasts and blogs, plus email and chat – is a lifeline for connections professional, emotional, political, and social.  The rewards are great.

Nostalgia is supposed to increase with age, and I admit that this has some small attraction to me, at times.  Music is one powerful tug.  As with most people, I think, I feel closely tied to the music I listened to as a teenager.  That means a Pandora-destroying mix of classical music (I played cello then), late 70s/early 80s punk, along with a weird brew of early industrial and World Serpent bands.  Most music since then hasn’t made much of an impression, I fear… except over the past decade I’ve gotten heavily into metal (you must click on this), which delights me.  Is that a way of recapturing the epic and fierce energies I loved as a teenager, or a good sign of a brain continuing to learn as it ages?  Perhaps both.

Musical interlude:

As we age we are, apparently, more likely to be concerned with religion.  Although I’ve studied religion throughout my adult life, I have not been a believer.  Nor have I written or spoken about this.  I’m not going to today, beyond noting that I haven’t bent my steps to a church or holy text lately.

I also confess to that very weird nostalgia some experience for the Cold War, of all things.  The labyrinth of Soviet history, the minutiae and vast terror of atomic war, the arcane wilderness of mirror that were intelligence schemes, the slowly unfurled mysteries of submarine operations are all catnip for me for all kinds of reasons. I can’t get enough of nuclear war movies.  Ostalgie, Yugo-nostalgia, and Soviet chic all make a perverse sense to me.  The incredulity of younger folks just makes it more fun.

That’s enough for now.  Eyeball mutation, transnational travel, the delights of nuclear incineration, weird music, treachery, and sweet love: I think that covers things.  Onward!

(photos by Alan Doll and Bart Maguire)

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28 Responses to Turning 51: entering the quinquagenarian age

  1. DrSturg says:

    “This work schedule is sickening me. It will likely, at some point, kill me.” Sobering.

  2. Ann Anderson says:

    Thank you for those personal insights. As I approach some of these age milestones myself, I find myself both frustrated and extremely grateful for my work situation. Steady work is a blessing, and I am fortunate to have certain medical expenses and retirement planning addressed. But I find my work less fulfilling than I did in the past. The work has not really changed. So obviously it is a change in myself as I have continued to age. Apparently, my priorities and preferences have changed, but I have yet to quantify how. Starting a blog may have something to do with it. It appeases a creative need in me that has not been met in some time at work. But the lack of feedback sometimes hits me hard. I keep trying to make efforts to expand readership, but they frequently leave me feeling like I have hit a brick wall. I know both of those reactions are unfair; that things take time. And regardless, blogging can never be more than a side hobby, even as I wish I could spend more time on it. Because it would never generate one-half of the financial stability of my day job. Still, as I continue to blog, I find myself more torn between the two. Part of this is because I have never been good at managing my time. As I have aged, I have become less so. Or, more accurately, there are just less things I am willing to put aside to get other things done. I can no longer pull the crazy long hours I could in my youth. Doing so makes me physically ill. I find I also need down time more and more. To reset my mind. To give my eyes more rest from computer screens. For example, if I spend all week ploughing through work, and try to write at night and all weekend, I will develop more migraines. So, I have to take down time from writing just to be ensure I can work properly at my day job. All the while, my creative muses push at me to write more. But I just can’t physically. So, another frustration of aging is that I have expanding interests conflicting with physical and financial limitations. Sorry for the ramble.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ah, that’s a hard couple of problems, Ann.
      For blogging, continuing to plug at it is the best way. Also, linking to other bloggers and commenting on their posts can help draw eyeballs your way. (I’ll try to be better)
      For work, what are the chances of revising your current position, or jumping to a new gig?

      • Ann Anderson says:

        Yes. I will keep plugging away at the blog. And garnering readership is something that just takes time. I just always have had patience issues.

        For work, given my position and seniority, the only way to revise my current position is to start somewhere new. And I am not sure I will find a place that will pay for my husband’s as well as my insurance. I am not sure moving to another paralegal position at another firm would fix my problems either. Add that to uncertainty about being able to obtain comparable pay and benefits, and jumping to another firm is not terribly enticing financially.

    • Elmo says:

      I hear you , the sprit is willing. But the body is not whether it eyes are tired or just energy generally, plus headaches ! it’s hard reconciling these things , my way seems to be muddle through with best intentions and hope for the best it’s all we can do I tell myself ;/

  3. Mark Curcher says:

    Thanks for that excellent link to Map of Metal. 🙂
    An interesting post for someone five years older than you to read.

    Despite living in a rather different society in terms of values and politics (though I think our weather has much in common) I also have concerns about health and retirement, perhaps because my children are a good deal younger than yours.

    Also, like you, I feel that my current work schedule is killing me….. 🙁

    Thanks for the work you do.

    BTW – Punk from the UK in the mid 70’s can’t be beat – though do check out Brutalism by IDLES from last year and also give the Viagra Boys from Sweden a listen – Research Chemicals.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Firing up IDLES now. (Isn’t the Map awesome?)

      Thank you for weighing in, Mark. Too much work, the pressure of health, concerns about children: I hear you, and raise a virtual glass in your direction. There’s got to be a better way.

  4. Great post, Bryan.

    I’ve been trying to write about aging for a few years now. One thing that I experienced in my late fifties/early sixties is a complete reevaluation of my entire purpose – and I still don’t have any real clarity. Perhaps that’s just life, in general, at least for me.

    One thing I would say – it’s perfectly okay to work hard right up till the end – but if you are going to do that, I’d offer some simple, obvious advice: work at what you love so it does not feel like work, even if the money is not what you hoped it would be. You seem to be doing that already, which is honorable.


  5. Sandy Brown Jensen says:

    You are a beloved and interesting person with such a unique life trajectory.
    As a 67 yr old retiree who still works but has more time to take care of myself, I know that relationships are first, health second, money third. Or maybe the first two can be bundled as one.
    I used to get all kinds of months long infections such as you describe—adopting a plant-based diet virtually gave me the first winter in my life with no illness.
    Happy birthday, Sincere Wanderer!

  6. Peter Shea says:

    “Around half are deeply concerned with their (as they see it) impending retirement, which doesn’t work for me. For one, I’m still not convinced I’ll be able to retire (not enough money, the chance of social service cutbacks).”

    Me too (I am also 51). 🙂

  7. Roxann D Riskin says:

    I do feel like I too, have been creating a birthday timeline like yours. I do despise the many commercials torturing the 50 year old plus gen as elderly, broke, disheveled, decrepit, sickly and ready for another pill to ingest to make us either feel younger, or control a horrible condition that came with “age”. Divorced from TV – I love the Internet. As it sometimes offers a placebo effect too, an escape to go to without said age discrimination. And BTW= Who cares if I’m wearing my pajamas to work- LOL~! 🙂
    Ahhh but there’s still so many more years here, for us! I hope to play, work and meet in virtual space with you for a long time! Until your next birthday, I wish you much happiness now and great experiences to last all year.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      “Divorced from TV – I love the Internet” – you are splendid, Roxann!

      And thank you for the fine thoughts and wishes.

  8. Geekymom says:

    Nicely written. I will hit 50 in a month, but I feel about 35. I can’t, for the moment, imagine slowing down. My dear hubby is on the verge of trying something new, which leaves our financial future a bit more uncertain. I’m hopeful for solid ground to land on in retirement.

    As George mentioned, purpose is something I think a lot about, though I find it difficult at times to marry purpose with making a real living. It is a discomfort I live with and think about. I feel partially fulfilled on that front, but there is a nagging at times.

    I look forward to charging into the 50s with you, my friend, with all it’s complexities and uncertainties.

  9. Kelly Dempsey says:

    Dear Bryan,
    A very happy birthday to you!

    The big 5-1 is finally here,
    Yes, you’re turning 51 this year.
    51 years of hopes and dreams,
    Rainy days, and golden sunbeams,
    Turning 51 is not so bad, it seems.

    Take a look back on all you’ve achieved so far.
    A family that loves you, and thinks you’re a star,
    Friends who have proven themselves through the years,
    By standing beside you through laughter and tears.
    Turning 51 is really quite good, it appears!

    Here’s to many more years of doing the great work you do.

  10. Joshua Kim says:

    Brian..thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I’m about 1.5 years away from 50. This feels strange, and I greatly appreciate your willingness to think publicly about this stage in life.

    Where I have been jolted is less the age (although I’ll let you know at 50), but more my daughters going off to college. Definitely feels like a new life stage.

    My wish for you is that your work contributes to, and does not detract, from your health. We all need to figure out how to have a healthy life in the face of our financialized economy and eroding social contract.

    Your work as a public intellectual in our space of higher education change and digital learning continues to be valued and appreciated by your community.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Having the kids of out the house is mind blowing. We just started experiencing that, and I need to write it up.

      Thank you for your kind words. Very needed and appreciated.

  11. Ellen Moody says:

    To read how you cope and find strength and joy helps me, Bryan. At 50 I was having a turning point (or around that age) because I came onto the Internet and it introduced me to new worlds of people, some of which I began to meet f-to-f. A whole new working life as a writer. I wish you could work less.

  12. Raquel Eri says:

    Wuauuu, I enjoy reading this posts , as I am 51 , I see my future years a little bit different as I always imagine it , I graduated cosmetology last year ( I know what some of you are thinking but I always wanted to do it ) so in my mind I had my whole future planned!!! Well my daughter made me a grandma last year just after my graduation and my state board exam, what it came as a surprise for me is that because my daughter is a single mom she have to work overtime so…. I am a full time overworked grandmother, I love my granddaughter from the and back but I really miss doing what I always wanted to do after my children left home 😞, my whole body aches because at 51 we are not meant to have babies 🤪

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