Image from Singles via Salon
In the second paragraph of Sara Scribner’s recent Salon article about Generation X, the journalist says:
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.
The article itself is entitled “Generation X gets really old: How do slackers have a midlife crisis?”
Let’s stop right there for a moment. The date range provided here for Generation X refers to people who are currently between 48 and 33 years old. Is 33 middle age? Is 33 “really old”? Hyperbole aside, is 48 even “really old”?
The rest of the article refers to people in their 40s. I get it. The writer is using the median age. Treatises on generations are always rift with broad-swept generalities, however the attention to age in this particular article is telling for the article goes on to bring up issues of delayed adulthood, parents, and leadership.
Scribner quotes historian and generational expert (side note: how does one get to be a generational expert? That sounds like an awesome job) Neil Howe saying:
“Xers experience agoraphobia — everything is possible.”
The article goes on to say:
That’s where this generation gets its reputation as reluctant to grow up. “It’s very hard to mature,” [Howe] 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.”
Further on in the article, Scribner explains the result of this:
[Sheryl] 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.”
Maybe, but that’s assuming that we’re talking about a Gen Xer born closer to the 1965 date. Let’s take someone smack dab in the middle of Gen X. If we’re using the range 1965 to 1980, let’s pick someone born in 1972. That person today (well, depending on when their birthday falls) would be 41 years old. Let’s now assume this person married right out of college and then had a kid the following year, when they were about 24 years old. (Keep in mind, that’s younger than the median age for getting married which is closer to 27.) That child would be about 17 years old. It’s therefore not at all shocking that many—even half of—Gen Xers would have “dependent kids at home.” It would actually be rather traditional and, dare I say, old-fashioned.
More interesting is not that life’s “major life milestones” are happening later but that they’re happening at different times for Gen X.
And, just as interesting is that, even with these societal changes, Scribner still upheld conservative viewpoints of adulthood when she paired the phrase “major life milestones” with Connelly’s quote about “empty nesters,” “postponing marriage,” and “dependent kids at home.”
This is where the article gets fascinating but isn’t fully explored. Yes, perhaps on the whole, people are postponing marriage and children and many who did have children now can’t get rid of their boomerang kids, creating a period of limbo. However, just like the age range of Gen X varies, so does the age that they’re getting married and having kids. That’s apparent even in looking at the celebrities the article mentions. Kurt Cobain (born in 1967) had a baby, and that baby is now 20 years old. Winona Ryder is 41 and has never been married or had children. Liz Phair, who is now 46, married a film editor in 1995 and had a child with him the following year; in 2001 the couple divorced.
I have friends I graduated college with who afterwards got married and now have two or three children. I have other friends I graduated high school with who are still very single—and by “very,” I simply mean that they are not only unmarried but also not in a steady relationship. I have a cousin who is about two years older than me who has a seventeen-year-old son. And I have other cousins who are about a decade older than me and have children the same age and younger than the cousin closer to my age.
At a writing conference, I had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues. On so many levels we connected. We’d had very similar upbringings. We had comparable goals with our writing. We shared parallel interests. Only about two years older than me, she is a mother of adolescent children and confessed to fearing empty-nest syndrome. At that moment in the conversation, my unmarried, childless self felt like a complete child next to her.
Going back to the statements about Gen X’s reluctance to grow up and the difficulty of maturing in this day and age, I think Howe’s concept of “agoraphobia” is worth more attention. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Howe’s assessment that we have a phobia, an irrational fear, of “shut[ting] off options,” but the fact that we have those options is significant. We have the option to get married right out of college or to wait until we’ve experienced more of life, know ourselves better, and have amassed a nest egg to support a family. There’s no longer the same social stigma there once was to have a child out of wedlock and so we have the option to have a child with a significant other who we may already be living with. With the advancement of medicine, we also have the option of waiting until we’re in our 40s to have children.
As Howe says, “everything is possible.” But what does that mean for our identities and for the concept of maturity and adulthood?
Does a Gen Xer who is single and childless at 48 years old have more in common with a single and childless 33 year old Gen Xer than with a 48-year-old Gen Xer with a toddler? Does a Gen Xer who is an empty nester have more in common with the Gen Xer who never had children? Does a divorced Gen Xer in their early 30s have a more similar lifestyle to a Gen Xer in their late 40s who never got married? Is the 48 year old who never got married and never had children less mature, less of an adult, because they haven’t reached certain “milestones”?
Maybe it’s time our concept of maturity shifted to match the time period in which we’re living. Maybe it’s time to recognize that today’s milestones have changed.
The Salon article says “Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s,” but the “serene ’50s childhood” is a myth. One, in fact, that we explore in Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” when talking about how illness killed off children, how war fractured families, how gender roles were back then, and how supposed countercultural icon Jack Kerouac longed for a wife and a ranch. Marilyn Monroe died at 36, never having a child. Ella Fitzgerald never had a child of her own but adopted one. Allen Ginsberg had a lifelong partner but his relationship was not considered traditional at the time. Clearly, there were people in the 1940s and ’50s who reached adulthood, reach midlife, without achieving traditional milestones. So why do we continue to use the same markers for maturity today that weren’t even accurate in the 1940s?
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