There weren’t a lot of books in our house when I was a boy, but I remember a copy of Gail Sheehy’s bestseller Passages sitting on my mother’s bedside table for the longest time, alongside a copy of I’m OK, You’re OK. There they were: two high water marks of mass market pop psychology that my poor mother probably read desperately, a woman born before World War I trying to figure out a world that was changing faster than she could imagine, and into a place that she’d never really understand.
The world is a confusing place, which is probably why we desperately try to contain it with sometimes arbitrary quantification, parsing history out into decades and humanity into generations. Life itself we subdivide into ages – infancy followed by childhood, then adulthood, followed by old age, a period of variable length, sometimes dignified by terms such as “senior,” none of which disguised the truth of gradual physical debilitation.
Sometime in the last century we invented “teenage” as economic and cultural changes gave a discreet identity to the scant decade between middle school and college, but before that, as lifespans increased and increasing prosperity allowed us to become anxious about our long years as workers and parents, we invented middle age, and with it the midlife crisis – that point when we reach the peak of life’s craggy uplands and get a chance to glance both backwards and forwards and wonder, anxiously, at what it all means.
Sheehy’s book did a lot to fix the midlife crisis as a toll booth through which we’d all have to pass, but only after it had become a plot device in comic films and a cliché in the single panel cartoons you’d see in vaguely literary magazines, the ones that involved paunchy men in age-inappropriate clothing, accessorized with sports cars and younger women. Male midlife crises lead to divorce while the female midlife crisis is a prelude to menopause, beginning when children began leaving home for college and manifesting itself in fad diets, furious exercise regimes and devotion to new age spirituality.
It’s easy to conclude that midlife crisis is mostly a middle-class problem, albeit one that became popularized as the middle class got ever larger, and middle class values began to colonize the upper- and working-classes above and below. It’s strange though, that at a time when individuals have more choice and potential than at any other time in history, free as we are from the restraints of liege lords, paternalistic employers and class systems, we’ve found a way to justify a perceived lack of freedom in the face of history, time of birth and time of life, victims of our decades, generations and midlife crises.
I had this all in mind as I watched a movie – Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, released two years ago but only now making its way to the top of my movie queue – and read “Generation X Gets Really Old,” an article published this year in the online magazine Salon. I have also, on the verge of my 50th birthday, found it impossible to ignore just how obsessed I’ve become with sports cars.
The Apatow movie did my generation no favours. It’s a portrait of a couple coping not just with their 40th birthdays but with the sort of frustration and disappointment that most keenly afflict an educated couple living in a city today – children old enough to remind them that they’re no longer young, culture reminding them that they’re no longer part of a youthful mainstream, and bank balances reminding them that they had the bad luck to be part of an economic cycle that’s moved from crisis to crisis since they were children.
It’s hard to like Pete and Debbie, the self-pitying and self-involved X-ers played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, but it was impossible for me not to feel for Pete when he’s forced to admit that he only started his failing record label as a way of creating a job for himself in an industry that no longer needed him. I have felt much the same way about journalism in the last few years.
The same hangdog tone afflicted the Salon piece, which catalogues the woes besetting my generation as it crests life’s hillock while listing all the ways we’re victims of history, of economics, of pop culture, of our parents and every generation before us, all of whom seemed to have either better music or economies or both.
“Downward mobility is a hallmark of this generation,” writer Neal Pollack, deputized to speak for the X-ers, tells the author of the article. “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 generation that preceded us – the Baby Boomers who took teenage into the mainstream and made youth and fervor, not age and wisdom, the most valued character traits – made a fetish out of rebellion, and forever afterwards we’ve come to expect that our children will deny our values as an inevitable rite of passage. But what’s probably worse is the way that despair has defined the X-ers, the generation that followed. They insisted that anything was possible, and we quickly learned that it wasn’t, but with a deep sense of resentment instead of the simple knowledge – often called common sense – shared by anyone who lived before movies were in colour.
In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not victims of time of birth or time of life as much as the misperception that we have much in common with anyone just because they share the same accident of chronology. Feigning helplessness while living at the peak (so far) of human liberty and potential is some new concession to the sin of despair, and proof that every sin is preceded by a rationalization. I might never be as healthy as I was, but I can definitely be smarter, and it seems a shame to waste a perfectly good midlife crisis getting angry at everyone either older or younger than I. And if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the car dealership to look at the Corvettes.