Generation X gets really old: How do slackers have a midlife crisis?

Gutted by the economy, shipwrecked by nostalgia, Gen X stares down a midlife crisis. Winona Ryder can't save it

Published August 11, 2013 6:01PM (EDT)

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in "Singles"
Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon in "Singles"

In the 1993 movie "Falling Down," Michael Douglas plays an angry white man whose midlife crisis has him nearly foaming at the mouth. Appalled by a brutal traffic jam and disorienting changes in his world, he flips out in a Korean liquor store, tangles with the homeless and construction workers, amassing an arsenal as he tries to make his way across town. His breakdown leaves casualties, makes the news -- everyone notices. An eloquent latter-day equivalent, Noah Baumbach’s "Greenberg," shows a meltdown going differently: The protagonist’s moment of crisis: Shrouded in an oversize ski vest, he wanders alone, quiet and pathetic, existentially lost on the edges of a party. Even his best friends don’t notice.

Created nearly 20 years apart, the films illustrate two different generations hitting middle age. People heard it loud and clear when the baby boomers crossed over to midlife – you couldn’t avoid it. Radio talk show hosts probed into the transition, newspapers described boomer women coping with crow’s feet and men reclaiming their vitality in tribal drum circles. For the generation born after – in the ‘60s and ‘70s, raised by television like no previous generation and with the divorce rate skyrocketing during their childhood years -- there is no media watch broadcasting their new trajectory. Few have even noticed that this small, notoriously rebellious clan – those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, which means about 46 million Xers versus 80 million boomers -- has entered middle age. It’s a transition that, until now, has been captured, mulled over and ridiculed for each generation for more than a half-century. But not this time.

The problem is, with adulthoods repeatedly shipwrecked by economic disasters, Xers might have neglected to track the crossing over. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the resonant memoir "In Spite of Everything," says that many Xers “are always living in a state of triage, always in a survivalist mode. We’re not thinking long-term.”

How is Generation X dealing with middle age? Celebration, turmoil, regret? Which issues are keeping Xers up at night? What happens when they wake up?

* * *

There’s plenty to joke about when it comes to midlife – there’s the stereotypical folly of the aging man grabbing his red Porsche and buxom young thing in order to stave off the fear of death. Crises are inherently filmic – and most of those films play midlife for laughs or shock value. Think of the musical-bed high jinks in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" or Peter Sellers getting high with nubile hippies in "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!"

But whether the rest of the world notices or not, it’s time for Xers – which, admittedly, is a broad, diverse bunch -- to start assessing in a way that goes beyond punch lines.

Whether you believe, as Gail Sheehy stated in "Passages," the ‘70s pop-culture classic on human life stages, that middle age is psychologically hard-wired or, as Patricia Cohen recently asserted in the book "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age," mostly a social and scientific construct, the pull of doing a full life assessment and inventory somewhere in your 40s has been historically difficult to resist.

This is true even when the inventory involves saying goodbye to youthful hopes. As Miranda July said about the inspiration for her film "The Future" in a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, “It’s kind of about letting go of that feeling of my 20s, that feeling that I will do absolutely everything, I will have sex with everyone, I will go to every country,” she says. “In your 30s, it’s obvious that a finite amount of things will happen.”

And then 40 – well, it’s all downhill from there. Right?

* * *

Around the time Richard Linklater’s film "Slacker" came out in 1991, journalists and critics put a finger on what they thought was different about the young generation of emerging adults – they were reluctant to grow up, disdainful of earnest action. The stereotype stuck – and it stuck hard. Business school management books define our generation as adaptable but reluctant to make decisions; and boomer managers call on Xers to finally take on leadership roles. Wake up and step up, X! the culture seems to be saying.

Richard Lerner, a psychologist and teen specialist at Tufts University, notes the many Xer entrepreneurs who have wrought substantial changes. But there might be something, he says, to the idea that Xers are distrustful of authority figures. Acrimonious divorces  -- and there were plenty during the ‘70s, during which American divorces nearly doubled -- are clearly bad for kids, but it’s probably more about the steady media stream they were fed early on. “I think it may be a historical effect, given the immediacy of news,” Lerner says. “There’s the separation, the distance between what authority figures say and what they do, the scandals that come out, that presumably makes some people skeptical about authority figures. It creates cynicism in people.”

There is a reason, says historian and generational expert Neil Howe, why members of Generation X have been cast as perpetual adolescents. Their parents – “the Silent Generation” – originated the stereotypical midlife breakdown, and they came of age, and fell apart, in a very different world. Generally stable and solvent, they headed confidently into adult lives about the time they were handed their high school diplomas, and married not long after that. You see it in Updike’s Rabbit books – they gave up their freedom early, for what they expected to be decades of stability.

“The Xer in midlife is facing the opposite midlife than the Silent Generation,” Howe says. “The Silent experienced claustrophobia. Xers experience agoraphobia -- everything is possible.”

That’s where this generation gets its reputation as reluctant to grow up. “It’s very hard to mature,” he says. “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options. The way Xers were raised, there were always options -- their parents told them to keep options open.”

But Xers started to see that their options were not as limitless as their parents had led them to believe.

* * *

While the past midlife crisis model focused on breaking down confining bonds, chipping away at that adult façade to return to the fountain of youth, Xers are still in full construction mode. “I’ve made a list – it’s the ‘do-better’ list,” Leslie Mann’s character tells her husband in Judd Apatow’s flawed but occasionally insightful "This Is 40." Her list, of course, is exhausting: A far cry from Peter Sellers’ laced-up, nearly calcified lawyer, chronically encased in his business suit, fighting to break out of convention, Debbie seems like a woman without a past, chronically intent on self-reinvention. She’s not looking back at what she lost – she’s barely gotten started.

The 40-somethings in Apatow’s film might have to downscale their lavish lifestyle, perhaps losing their luxury Westside manse and cutting back on the private trainer. The economic reality for most Xers is much harsher. According to this year’s Pew study, Xers lost 45 percent of their wealth during the Great Recession. More than a few experts suggest that Xers – finally buying their starter homes in their 30s -- unwittingly helped inflate the real estate bubble. They certainly bore the brunt of the collapse.

So just around the time that we were on schedule to settle down, our midlife economic peak became the worst market failure since 1929. “Our entire life has been punctuated by economic disasters from the time we were born,” says Gregory Thomas. “At every major milestone there’s been an economic collapse. There is no rest for Generation X. There’s no time to sit back and think ‘Am I happy or not?’”

For many of us, who waited to prepare things just so before we started a family, the idea of waking up to family-and-career complacency and wondering how we lost track of our youthful dreams sounds like the luxury of a more secure generation.  David Byrne’s suburban lament “How did I get here?” has become the more practical “How can I pay my rent?” John Lennon’s love-struck refrain “It’s just like starting over” is, for many of us, not a romantic lark. It’s real life. And it’s a lot less fun.

“If anything,” says Wendy Fonarow, a social anthropologist and the author of the indie-rock chronicle "Empire of Dirt," “our generation is characterized by not hitting a wall of midlife crisis but having crises throughout.”

If you think this is typical Gen X whining, you are probably a boomer.

Many Xers have responded by battening down the hatches, carving out a different path. The writer Emily Matchar has written a book called "Homeward Bound" about homespun, sustainable culture – a cozier, less punkish offspring of the original do-it-yourself indie culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s -- as a rejection of what Xers and Millennials see as the false promise of career and marketplace. After 9/11 and then the economic collapse, some Xers even took things to the extreme, digging into their sustainable urban farms as a way of girding for a post-apocalyptic world.

Other generations say that we lucked out because there was no major war that took legions overseas, no presidential assassinations, no civil rights battles rocking our home turf. Not true, says Gregory Thomas. “Our war was at home and it was divorce. They were some of the worst divorces in American history.”

Because of this, she says, we are deeply neurotic parents – afraid to even take a shower while the baby sleeps in the bassinet. “Alice Miller says that people who sustain these wounds in childhood -- they are called ‘narcissistic wounds -- they still behave as if that wound is going on, like Japanese soldiers guarding the forts twenty years later.”

So Xers tend to create sanctuaries that cannot be pierced by fluctuations in the marketplace. Sheryl Connelly, a global trends and future forecaster for Ford Motor Co., says that Xers tend to seek out experiences rather than status symbols. Acquiring flashy cars is for older generations.

Writer Neal Pollack has immersed himself in yoga in order to cope with financial stress and develop perspective on life. “Money is the one thing that keeps me up at night,” he says. “Downward mobility is a hallmark of this generation. I just feel like we’re not going to pull ourselves out of the hole. But what can you do? You have to be grown up about it. You can’t be dissatisfied and unhappy about it all the time. We don’t have that security – the illusion of knowing that everything was going to be all right. But Gen X always had that feeling that everything wasn’t going to be all right.”

One of the benefits, though, of not being locked down too early in the traditional American career-family cycle is that we had a lot more freedom early on. “I’ve achieved in some way all the goals that I set down for myself at a young age,” says Pollack. “I’ve toured with a rock band, sat in the press box at Dodger Stadium. I’ve accomplished a lot, but I’m sitting here wondering how to pay the rent next month. So maybe midlife is about figuring out how to accept the limitations.”

For singer, songwriter and playwright Stew, technically on the generational cusp but in some ways a classic Gen X artist, midlife questioning arrived when he realized he couldn’t stay in the van forever. “Midlife crisis is the definition of being in a rock band after 30,” he says, talking about the move to create the lounge show that became a hit Broadway musical "Passing Strange" and the ensuing Spike Lee movie. “'Crisis' is a great word, it just means, ‘now you’ve got to do something.’”

Howe agrees: It’s about time, he says, for Xers to acknowledge limits and step up to the plate. “These Xers spending their lives with this sardonic view, never taking anything that’s happening in public at face value, but always to find the failing, that expresses a bigger problem with X -- they are always outsiders,” he says. “These boomer CEOs say that they are maturing to the extent that they should be heading into leadership roles, but they simply don’t want to accept responsibility to the bigger community.“

The Xers’ parents operated differently, he says. “The problem with the Silents was to get out of being identified with the institution. You look at [Daniel] Ellsberg, he was this flunky for the Pentagon. He just backed up LBJ and all the lies, and then he had to break free.” By contrast, “How many Xers have unwittingly been a sucker all their lives?”

Fonarow says that judging Xers by boomer standards is unfair. “It’s like this huge black cloud going, 'Hey, Sun, underneath us – why aren’t you shining brighter?'”

* * *

“There’s this incredible denial of middle age going on,” Patricia Cohen says. “It’s part of this extended adolescence now going into your 40s and 50s. People want to hang onto their youth, so in that sense you’re young-young-young ‘til you’re old.”

The ongoing avalanche of information about how to retain that nubile body and that youthful glow puts pressure on people – especially women – to do everything that we can to stay fit. (It’s why we get a nostalgic thrill from watching the characters in "Mad Men" drink, smoke and stay up all night – the mere freedom of bald ignorance, of living in a time when you just didn’t know.) Cultural representations of middle-aged women have been unkind in the past, but it’s gotten more unforgiving for boomers and Xers alike. “I think we’re laboring under a different oppressive media image,” says Cohen. “Before, it was the frigid, asexual, overweight, boring housewife. And now we’ve gone to ‘you have to look like Jennifer Aniston.’ If we’re not a size-2 figure and have smooth skin from all of this work, then we think we’re a failure. We look horrible.”

In this way, Xers are a lot like boomers. There are additional pressures for most Xers, though. Many of us – busy building careers, wounded by family divorce, or just wanting to lay down the perfect foundation for marriage and family life -- waited to have children. Studies reveal that a disproportionate number of us are sandwiched between dependent children and aging parents – fending off economic stressers while juggling a heavy load of family responsibilities.

Connelly, the Ford futurist, says that some of the postponing of the traditional midlife period may come down to a pushing back of all the major life milestones: “Some of that [midlife questioning] would be fueled by empty nesters – the kids are grown,” she says, explaining a feeling of "now what?" “Demographics have shifted such that with each passing generation, people are postponing marriage.” With dependent kids at home, everything has been pushed back. “There’s nothing midlife about my situation right now.  I think that’s why you don’t hear this conversation.”

“Xers are deep into family formation,” says Connelly. The flashy car isn’t important, but building that calm, peaceful fort is. “Xers are keeping stores like Pottery Barn and Architectural Hardware solvent. I think they will continue to spend at home, on the home.”

Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s childhood that they never had and they have been pretty focused on creating a solid home life for their children, whether it’s from re-creating the idyllic family-oriented tableaux depicted in an Ikea catalog or jarring their own preserves. Making things “from scratch” – stepping away from the marketplace -- is the new status symbol. Domestic success for the college-educated Xer is gauged by how many processed food packages you have in your pantry. Neil Howe describes a recent survey in which a sample group of Xers were asked to pick their model mother. Among many options, they chose June Cleaver.

* * *

Many of the voices of our generation have fizzled out with time – think Liz Phair and Winona Ryder – or simply not been able to make it through – like Elliott Smith, David Foster Wallace, Eazy-E and Kurt Cobain.

If they are still with us, many of the great artists and thinkers of our generation have withdrawn. We barely hear from them. If they are active, like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Meshell Ndegeocello or Dave Eggers, they have carved out their own, highly individualistic places, but in many ways all but retreated from the public sphere. Naomi Wolf is writing about her vagina. (In contrast, other generations’ public intellectuals – Mailer, Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Susan Sontag, William Buckley, Bob Dylan, Gloria Steinem – helped question assumptions, steer tastes and cultural beliefs.) The most accomplished Xers stay out of the way. But to interpret personal experience, it helps to have generational role models to shine a light.

Similarly, Xers have continued a post-1970s abandonment of politics and the public sphere. It could trace back to the fact that many of our fathers – traditional symbols of rule-making and the state -- left home early on. It may have something to do with watching Nixon’s spellbinding wave goodbye while we were still fiddling with our loose baby teeth. This was leadership? This was disgrace.

If you were taking in some of your first lessons about American history as Reagan was running his “morning in America” ad, if you misinterpreted Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic clarion call, if your adolescent sense of self was aligning to the right -- as Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan’s were – becoming a politician might have seemed possible.  That is, as long as your sense of politics was built around hating politics. Is there anything possible besides their cartoonish mix of Reagan and Ayn Rand?

Where are the thoughtful Gen X politicians? Obama – born in the generational borderland of 1961 -- campaigned on getting beyond boomer conflicts. But that hasn’t quite happened. Now the Republicans are figuring out how to keep from imploding and Democrats are trying to choose between Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Anthropologist Fonarow sees her generation as “tremendously out of step. Where are our voices?” Xers, she says, just think differently about their place in the world.

“When you believe in change introspectively, you believe in galvanizing one person at a time,” she says of the way indie culture has typically been passed down. “It’s about changing yourself from within and interacting with people face to face. It’s not about telling other people what to do. ‘You need to do this. You have to do things my way. If you are not a part of my solution, you’re part of the problem.’ In that sense, it might not be a very effective political strategy. I’m hoping that we, combined with the Millennials, can be a sort of sleeping lion.”

How long will we keep sleeping? A running joke in "This Is 40" is the line “We’re going to blink and be 90!” Gen Xers can’t afford to let that happen to ourselves. We’ve been knocked down a few times, that’s for sure. Howe laments the fearfulness of our generation. In his book "X Saves the World," journalist Jeff Gordinier blames a kind of existential paralysis: He ends the book with a rallying cry to “dare” and dream big. For many Xers, daring might mean digging in and thinking collectively for a change. It might mean paring down the options and figuring out what really matters.

And one thing that’s clear: No one else is going to care that we’re moving into red-Ferrari territory. Sure we’ve been screwed. And there may be no Ellsberg in our bunch, but we drank plenty of American Dream Kool-Aid: the idea of real estate being a good investment, the platitude about working hard and getting a good education to secure a solid footing, and the assurance that you need to follow your dreams and not compromise. We are now the most educated American generation – and the first one not doing better than its parents.

There is a chance that being repeatedly burned by the marketplace may actually help us; our natural skepticism may be something American society needs to hear. Most of our trouble – from the Bush 1 recession to the dot-com bust and the more recent economic pit of despair – has stemmed from unchecked optimism. The Xers have paid for that trickle-down optimism repeatedly.

If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves. Middle age is, if nothing else, time to shift out of second gear. If we can’t take a break from the urban farms, put down the knitting and home brewing equipment, and step into politics, business and other kinds of leadership, we’ll deserve our reputation as the generation that never quite showed up. Rather than the sound of silence, we should be hearing our voices – and they should be loud and angry.

By Sara Scribner

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