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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.