osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

From Midlife Crisis to Midlife Angst

I've been contemplating this piece for awhile. The contemplative nature of the Elul season and some not unusual or overly dramatic life events prompt me to try to put some of these thoughts in order.

"From Midlife Crisis to Midlife Angst."

One of the great cliches of modern times has been the idea of the "Midlife Crisis." As portrayed in endless movies and sitcoms, the midlife "crisis" occurs when someone (usually a financial successful white male) suddenly realizes that he is, statistically speaking, about halfway through life. What follows is either a realization that "Oh, I am not happy in my life despite having done and accumulated all that should make me happy" or an effort to deny one's aging by trying to do all sorts of "young" things. Hijinks ensue.

I am now halfway through my 46th year, which puts me a few miles north of the half-way point on my demographically predicted lifespan. Lord knows my body constantly reminds me that I am Not As Young As I Used To Be. I am quite definitely 'middle age.'

In talking to my friends of the same age cohort (and generally similar financial situation), I have found -- in my extremely unscientific and impressionistic survey -- a peculiar commonality of reflections and zetigeist. Perhaps in keeping with our peculiar generational status, we quietly gave up the concept of the midlife crisis. We all knew we would one day die (who doesn't?) and watched the antics of our elders denying this inevitable state with amusement and mild contempt. Similarly, most of us that have achieved financial success (and/or relationship success) do not regret our life path or choices. No one I know woke up to realize they only became a lawyer or computer programmer or manager because it was what people expected and what s/he really wanted was to become a musician or yoga instructor.

What we have is a peculiar angst that comes from not knowing whether we're actually done or not.  After a lifetime of navigating an uncertain and shifting future where we had to define for ourselves what 'success' means, we don't really have any indicator whether we have finished reinventing ourselves. It's not a question of retiring (which is still envisioned as decades away -- if at all). For one thing, I and the others in this situation generally like what we do and find our lives quite comfortable. But we also recognize that if we are going to reinvent ourselves yet again, change jobs again, learn new skills again, or whatever it is we need to do it now. it is no longer enough to know that we are happy doing what we are doing for the next five years. We suddenly need to know whether we want to do it for the next 20 years.

"Is this all there is?" Is not a question of despair or disappointment, because what we have is pretty good and we know it. For us, the question is more "are we done yet?" And it is a genuine question, asked with real puzzlement. having been trained since childhood to count on nothing for certain, to define ourselves, to assume we will continually "reinvent" ourselves and that we must perpetually be looking to our next job and 'take charge' of our own career path and career development, we have no concept of what 'stability' means.

It is enjoyable, but vaguely disquieting.

A Generation of Middle Children

The branch of psychology that studies birth order as destiny spends a good deal of time on the Oldest Child and how the Oldest Child is defined by conflict with the parent on one hand while also embracing the role of wielder of parental authority to the younger children. They also focus on the Youngest Child, the "baby" who receives special treatment and has a whole separate set of issues and expectations from this relationship.

None of them spend too much time on middle children because they are all over the map. They watch the fighting between the Oldest and Parental Authority, but (unless there is a significant age gap) don't really remember the time as "the baby."  So Middle Children end up pretty much defining themselves based on the smorgasbord of possibilities they observe.

The age cohort born approximately from 1965-70 are the middle children of demographics. Not really Baby Boomers and not actually Gen Xers, those born in this time do not have a really defined generational character or characteristics. Instead, you find a lot of elements of either generation creating a peculiar blend that is sufficiently small enough for marketing purposes and ill-defined for sociological purposes that no one studies it much.

Unlike our elders, we did not grow up in a world ripe with promise where we were told we could be whatever we wanted to be or that if we worked hard and applied ourselves we would automatically succeed. As Billy Joel warned us when we were teenagers, the days when "every child had a pretty good shot/to get at least as far as their old man got" were over.  Through the stagflation of the late 1970s, the destruction of the working class in the 1980s and our graduation from college (which more of us attended than any previous generation) just in time for the recession, we learned that we could count on no one but ourselves. The idea of having a job with the same company for a lifetime, followed by a pleasant retirement, was never a real option or expectation.

At the same time, however, we were told there were lots of opportunity for the lucky and the ruthless workaholic. Greed was good, and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" showed what earthly pleasures could await the handful of winers who made it to become uber-rich. But we also picked up the internal conflict of the Boomer Generation, whether what was important was personal success or material fulfillment. Meanwhile, we were raised by Parents from the Beat Generation who had absorbed the Depression/WWII work ethic and ideas about sacrifice -- ideas that our immediate elders were rebelling against. It was as if Boomers were our older siblings, constantly butting heads with our parents, giving us the chance to absorb or reject values from the Greatest Generation through the Me Generation, without any overarching construct or generational consciousness.

Similarly, we avoided the overload of instruction, surveillance, supervision and over-scheduling that are the hallmark of Gen Xer and Millennial childhood. We still largely made our own social lives and schedules rather than having play dates. Parents raised in the safer fifties saw nothing wrong with us taking public transportation and playing unsupervised outdoors. I never heard of a "play date" -- meaning an arranged play time between myself and my friends -- growing up. It was "go play with your friends." Sometimes it was even "go outside and find something to do!" If I had given such instructions to Aaron when he was 8, I would have been reported by concerned teachers for criminal neglect. But growing up our parents found it quite natural -- and since the parents of our friends did the same thing it was what was normal.

We never had metal detectors in school, or urine tests to participate in sports or school activities, or 24-hour surveillance cams in our rooms for our own protection. Our anti-drug program was "Just Say No" and learning to sing "Users Are Losers" from a dog in a trenchcoat. Unlike our Boomer elder siblings, we actually did get anti-drug education, anti-alcohol education and sex education, so we had some idea about all this before going off to college and not needing to have some sort of magic discovery. But at the same time, we did not get mandatory testing about it or constant supervision. Having been, in the view of our elders, properly educated, it was our responsibility to Do The Right Thing and just say no.

Culturally, we had no great generational struggles to define us, but the day to day challenges were quite enough even for the middle and working class undergoing its long and steady erosion. None of which our parents or Boomer elders ever understood. They knew the world had changed, but had no advice for us on how to navigate that changing world.  I can recall the time in my mid-20s when I told my parents that no one my age believed Social Security would still exist when we turned 65, so we put a high value on jobs with a 401(k) contribution. We knew we would get old and need something, but we had no confidence the safety net we were paying into would ever be there for us.

My parents looked at me like I had suddenly started speaking Swahili. The statement that "Social Security will not be there when reach 65" was roughly the equivalent of "I believe the polar ice caps will melt and our home will be underwater" -- a statement which also looks today much more like conventional wisdom and much less like dystopic fantasy. But to me (and most people my age starting out during the recession of the late 80s/early 90s) it seemed self-evident. Just as all the good jobs were gone, just as all sense of safety was eroded by rising crime, just as all the resources of the world -- from the Amazon rainforest to the ozone layer -- were being sucked up and frittered away for the benefit of our elders, so too would the safety net of social security.

We never had the expectation that if we followed the rules and did what we were supposed to do, we would be rewarded with magical jobs and success. So we never felt angry and betrayed when that promise was broken. At the same time, we never felt the despair and helpness that seems so common among our Millennial younger siblings.  Things were difficult, but not bleak. Our school debt was heavy, but not crushing. You might not have job security, but you could still have a career -- if you were nimble enough, lucky enough and clever enough to work the system on your own terms.

With no expectation of a steady job and a successful career as any previous generation had understood it, we were freed from the establishment expectation of success as defined by particular career paths or even income levels. When only a handful of people can be uber-rich, and when it is easy to lose your job and your savings, it is success to live comfortably. In a world where the popular culture of our immediate elders was dominated with ideas of self-fulfillment, we could more easily avoid the traditional expectations of what constituted success.

Culturally, we were not the Beat Generation. We had no Jack Kerouac to  take us on the road or James Dean to show us how to rebel. We had no Kennedy or MLK to inspire us. But we still had options. If we couldn't be Kennedy or Kerouac or King, we could still be Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly or Joel Goodsen ("Princeton needs a man like you Joel!") Whether we wanted to be charming comfortable slackers, charming successful geek musicians, or charming successful pimp-entrepreneurs -- we could do it by relying on our wits, determination, and vaguely charming cluelessness.

But, most importantly, we would do it on our own -- without the help or hinderance of well-meaning-but-clueless parents and self-absorbed older siblings.

Reinvention Generation

So we became the generation of reinvention. No job was permanent, or any career choice. it required no pattern, just "skills" and interests. As our laid off parents and Boomer elders tried to "manage their career" and "reinvent themselves" after a lifetime of expecting to work the same job until retirement, we flourished in a world that had no expectations and let you find your own level of success or failure. We had no delusions we would stay young for ever, but no particular anxiety about growing old. it would happen like everything else.

Similarly, we didn't have nearly the same hang ups about marriage and family as our elders did. Sure, we generally married later, and we usually lived with the person we would marry for a couple of years before tying the knot. (Well, I didn't, but I'm odd.) This wasn't radical or scandalous as it had been for our Boomer elders. it was the natural progression.

And no one in our generation thought marriage equaled ownership. By and large, men 50-40 share the same expectation as men under 40 that their wives will work and that it doesn't really matter who makes more money. And if they are not nearly as good (on average) about housework and childrearing, they are not the helpless pathetic man-child of popular culture. Pretty every male of my generation cooks, washes dishes, changes diapers, and so forth.

All of which meant that the advice and hang ups offered by our elders made absolutely zero sense. When Becky and I got married, not a single person in my parents generation had a single bit of relevant advice. Nor did pop culture gurus, who were still addressing the issues of the Boomer generation. Becky and I found the balance in our relationship of jobs and childcare and home care through an endless process of negotiation and experimentation. The result was a division of labor based not on gender or even earning power (since we both earned about the same) but on work schedule. I had greater flexibility for when I could leave for work, so I did all the morning stuff. Becky, being a pharmacist, had to be there spot on at shift change, but also left at shift change at 4:30. So she got afternoon carpool and pick up.

Then there was division by talent. I cook. I actually care about trying to keep the house clean. So those fell to me. Becky does any stuff requiring tools because she is mechanically inclined and I'm not. Becky helped Aaron with math homework because she is better at math. I went to all the parent teacher conferences because I cared much more about certain details and wanted first hand information.

None of this fit any pattern we ever heard of. And we weren't alone. Nearly every couple in our age cohort comes up with its own balance, ranging from full-on traditional to inverse traditional (stay at home dad, wife works). But every single advice book, television show or movie in popular culture kept responding as if nothing had changed since 1970.

In our professional lives and in our personal lives, we kept reinventing ourselves. Every life event was a discussion and a decision arrived at primarily by balancing factors and considering what might lie ahead. And if we had no guide to tell us what was right and no safety net to support us if we guessed wrong, we also had not guide to tell us we were wrong and no net of expectations to restrain us.s

The Middle Age Angst

So here we are in middle age. For those of us (mostly, but not exclusively, white) that ran the gauntlet and succeeded for whatever definition of success we employed, things are good. Which is where the angst comes from.

After a lifetime of reinventing ourselves, we don't really know how to stop, or if we should. I am happy doing what I'm doing, which is nothing at all like what I imagined i'd be doing when I graduated from college. Heck, the field I work in didn't exist when I graduated from college. But if I am going to reinvent myself again, as I've done every 5-10 years because I had to, I need to do it soon. Because I am not ignorant of the fact that I am getting older.

Which is why our question is not "Is this really all there is?" But "am I done yet?" Where I am is pretty good. But my whole life I've never had the expectation that where I am now is where I will be. I'm not particularly looking for a next job or a new career, which is weird, because looking to the next job or next career was always the default.

It's not a crisis, because there is nothing terribly urgent or life changing or anxiety provoking about it. It doesn't need to be solved tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. But it weighs on me from time to time -- out of habit and out of a sense that time is moving on and a decision that should be a rational decision will get made by default.

Welcome to the Middle Age Angst.

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