Don’t pigeonhole Gen Xers as ‘middle-aged’

Lately, I’ve found myself recoiling at the term ‘middle-aged’. I even have a hard time saying it. Similar to the proverbial character on the big screen who stutters over a word which they find so unappealing, all for dramatic effect. Since I am ‘middle-aged’, (by all reasonable definitions), I thought I’d better get over myself already and accept the facts as they are. The only thing worse than denying the facts of advancing age is pretending to be younger, when it is obviously not the truth.

I rationalized that probably everyone who came before me, and most of those coming up, has experienced and will struggle with the notion that their live is significantly marked as being half over. If any of us questioned when we would finally become a proper grown up, surely midlife marks that point. All the facts are fine and well, but somehow saying it out loud feels offensive. Maybe that is too strong a word. For while the mathematical equations of how long one has lived versus the average predictions of a lifespan accurately pinpoint middle age — that number doesn’t honour what has passed and what is yet to come.

For me, and it turns out for many others in my ‘middle-aged’ range, there is a strong feeling that our best years are ahead. I like to redefine where I am on the arc of my whole life, as well. A more meaningful calculation would be to mark the age I really felt like an adult. Let’s say that was around 21 years old. That is even debatable, but that is the year I met my husband and started on that adult journey of marriage, buying a home and having a family. In reality, I think most of the childhood years are either forgotten, (my 14 year old daughter hardly remembers much of her early childhood!), or are the awkward learning of a teenager, who is taking from the world, rather than giving back much value.

If age 21 is the gateway to being an adult, and say I expect to live to age 86, then my actual adult midlife is starting somewhere around age 53. Although according to the chart below, I might well live into my nineties.

All of the mathematic calculations, actuary tables and predictions are nice, but no-one has a crystal ball. There is no way to know any of this for certain. I might be passed my actual midlife point already. So all of this is kind of pointless. Therefore the label of ‘middle-aged’, as it relates to Gen-X, (people born roughly from 1964 to 1976), is somewhat irrelevant. What is more interesting to observe is, how this maturing time of life is being experienced. Are there trends and common threads emerging?

A friend sent me a trend forecast report from an agency which advises the apparel industry. Now that I am retired, I don’t have access to these things anymore. But, further research turned up a decent amount of information. As I read through the different articles, it felt as if the survey respondents were grabbing words right from me; that is how closely I agree with the lived experience observations.

I’m going to summarize of a few of the big ideas to give anyone who is not Gen-X an idea of where our little lost generation is coming from. Those that are in this camp with me, you might be nodding your head in agreement. Of course, this is not everyone’s story. But I was really happy to see how many people, from all walks of life, around the world were similar to me. Particularly because in my friend group I tend to feel a bit of an outsider for deciding to leave my first career. That is not something that I had a role model to follow. I often feel as if I’m breaking trail.

  • Balanced Life — time spent with family, focus on parenting or other forms of mentoring, take priority over time spent at work. The responsibilities of midlife are not causing a crisis in the same frequency or patterns as previous generations. Possibly the lifelong rebelliousness and independence have been the foundation towards more effective adulting strategies.
  • Time Out — (my personal favourite!) possibly the anti-authoritarian stance that marks Gen-X, taken to its full conclusion is why a growing number are stepping out of the system to focus on family time and enriching experiences instead of box-ticking formalities. (I had no idea this was a ‘thing’!)
  • Pay It Forward — taking actions to make the world a better place, and leave it in a better state than what we started with. Every generation has an element of this attitude, but technology has made this easier than ever before to reach many more people. Social entrepreneurship efforts are amplified by social networking online, where people can collaborate, learn, disseminate information and even crowd fund.
  • Purpose At Work — leadership experts like Simon Sinek say, it should be a basic human right to engage in work that is meaningful, in an environment which feels safe and to have fun while learning to stretch towards your potential. Sadly, many corporations are numbers first, driven enterprises. For a growing number of GenX, the need for balance is not so much about the time spent at work versus time spent at home. Balance is about finding purpose and fulfillment in all areas of life.
  • Cautious and Ethical — we have come through 2 big global financial crisis time periods and generally are less prepared for retirement, in the classical sense. In defense of the situation, possibly there is an acceptance that a typical post-corporate retirement is not what was wanted anyway. The life-long habits of careful consideration ahead of major purchases will continue. Making the choice of where the money is finally spent meet many markers, not just the cheapest price.

So what does all of this mean? The research found that 81% of Gen Xers describe themselves as happy with their lives today. The numbers are not insignificant, Gen X represents nearly 2 billion people globally — well over a quarter of the world’s population. It would appear that Gen X is approaching and fully experiencing midlife without the hallmark crisis component of previous generations. The reasons for this could be chosen from the list above or from many others not mentioned here. While each person leads a very individual life, the common denominator is pretty positive. That has not always been the case when reporting on the lives of Gen Xers.

I think it is pretty cool to be part of a generation who generally feels happy with their lives. Learning this, boosts my happiness even further. But, at the same time, don’t pigeonhole Gen Xers as ‘middle-aged’!

I welcome: