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Gutted by the Economy, Shipwrecked by Nostalgia, Gen Xers Are Facing Mid-Life Crisis

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.

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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.”

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