Last spring, I celebrated my 50th birthday. Some might say I’ve finally reached capital-M Midlife, but I’ve always contended that Midlife started back when I turned 39. I mean, I harbor no unrealistic dreams of longevity, based solely on the amount of chemicals I put away in the ‘70s in the form of Tab, Bubble Yum and Pop Rocks. Then again, I’m a Gen-Xer, for whom dry-eyed pragmatism is a generational calling card.
And it’s exactly that deeply ingrained bias against bullshit that I think means my cohort and I are going to totally rock middle age.
Let me explain. At 46 million members, Gen X is small, wedged between some 80 million Baby Boomers and 78 million Millennials. We have classic middle child syndrome — ignored and overlooked and stuck between two hulking siblings who’ve taken up all the legroom and media attention on our 78-year road trip around the sun.
Demographic shorthand for Americans born 1964-ish to 1980-ish says that most of our parents were divorced and distracted, leaving their latchkey offspring to fill up the black hole of after-school loneliness in their souls by mainlining Stouffer’s French bread pizza and waiting for the “Thriller” video to come on MTV.
As we emerged into young adulthood, the stock market crash of ’87 rode shotgun and recruiters stayed away from campuses in droves. So a generation with one of the highest rates of college education also immediately became one of the most underemployed, working those “McJobs” that the media lamented were all that the Slacker Generation aspired to.
The first Gulf War had a similar chilling effect on the economy a few years later. Then the Dot Com era roared to life in the late 1990s and was great for the young Gen-X workforce — until it imploded and wasn’t anymore. Just as our bank accounts and collective self-confidence finally began to recover from that burst bubble, the 21st century’s Great Recession swept through, visiting layoffs and foreclosures upon families like a biblical plague that comes somewhere between “locusts” and “The Kardashians Get The Monopoly They Seek On Television Programming.”It’s awfully hard to follow your bliss and become a ceramics/yoga guru at age 50 when the skyrocketing cost of your kids’ college tuition has permanently pushed your blood pressure into the red zone.
Of course, the Boomers were hit hard by the recession too, so they were holding onto their upper management jobs longer. Meanwhile, the Millennials started pouring out of college and nipping at our ankles with a seemingly mystical ability to understand mission-critical social media platforms at the same lightning pace they’re invented — plus lower salary requirements and higher evolutionary ability to adapt to open office plans. (I remember offices with doors. They were good.)
So by midlife, when people in my generation might have expected to be in our peak earning and leadership years with enough of a financial cushion to shop for sports cars or finally take up belly dancing, my peers and I are working our tails off just to stay in place. It’s awfully hard to follow your bliss and become a ceramics/yoga guru at age 50 when the skyrocketing cost of your kids’ college tuition has permanently pushed your blood pressure into the red zone.
Gen-Xers have been disillusioned so long, it has become our ambient state. The emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence that are the markers of a midlife crisis? We’ve been soaking in it since about 1972.
And that, I think, is where it gets interesting.
Demographers who painted Gen-Xers with the “cynical slackers” brush in the ‘90s are starting to realize they may have overlooked some of the more positive aspects of our collective personality attributes. If happiness can be measured as the gap between expectations and reality, then Gen-X’s famously low expectations may lead us to some outrageously satisfied middle ages.
According to the Longitudinal Study of American Youth from the University of Michigan, which studied the nature and magnitude of changes for American youth in the years after high school starting in 1987, Gen-Xers are now more likely to be involved in formalized lifelong learning than any prior generation. Ninety-five percent of them talk by phone to friends or family every day. They are active in their communities. They are involved with their kids and have high educational aspirations for them. As one recent LSAY study update says of Generation X, “If we could use only three words to describe them, the most applicable choices would be active, balanced and happy.”
For the record, I once had what I thought could have been a midlife crisis when a bouncer at a Vampire Weekend concert asked me if I was just there to drop off my kids. It was a gut punch for this lifelong alternative music fan. In fact, for a time I worked on a memoir about the yearlong effort that followed to find more “midlife appropriate” music, an exploration that took me to jazz clubs and heavy metal shows and landed me, at one point, doing a kick line with Fanilows while singing “Copacabana” along with Barry Manilow. An editor, gauging my chances for publication, said, “There just isn’t enough at stake.” Thinking it over, I couldn’t disagree. I didn’t develop a drug habit. I didn’t leave my family to become a groupie. No fresh tattoos were involved.
The upshot of my “midlife crisis”? I still go to alternative music concerts. But now I also go to jazz, heavy metal and Manilow shows. It wasn’t so much a midlife crisis as a midlife expansion.
Gen-X has always held a mindset in which idealism and realism could peacefully co-exist. Maybe it will enable us to be the generation that makes it through this phase of life without buying into the hype that says getting older is cause for the blues. The generation that can integrate who we were when we wanted our MTV with what we are today.
Over the past half century, I’ve eschewed most opportunities to wave my Gen-X Club membership card. That’s kind of our way — we’re not joiners.
But lately, I confess to renewed generational pride. Because “Oh well, whatever, never mind,” wasn’t just the lyric to the anthem of our youth. It’s also a brilliant philosophy for midlife contentment.