A Floridian named George Raymond wrote that to The Wall Street Journal in response to a WSJ article last month, “The Virtuous Midlife Crisis.” If Baby Boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964, most of whom are now on Medicare and Social Security, suffered midlife crises involving sports cars, younger and/or multiple partners, tattoos, facelifts and fancy jewelry, their children now settling into middle age are putting their stamp on that venerable midlife phenomenon. Instead of partying in Las Vegas, Gen Xers are meditating, eating well and hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Andrea Petersen, author of “The Virtuous Midlife Crisis,” put it, “Many people facing midlife now don’t want to blow up their lives, just upgrade them.” Having married later than their parents, Gen Xers may feel that they have already had plenty of fun and want to stay healthy and happy for as long as they can. Many appear less concerned with achievement and money than with life experiences and overall well-being.
Gen Xers’ revised thinking in midlife is having impacts in all sorts of ways. Doctors report more people in their 40s and 50s are altering lifestyles by less food and drink and more exercise, with a clear goal of staving off lifestyle-related conditions including cancer, heart disease and possibly dementia. Yoga and meditation classes are packed with middle-agers. Travel professionals increasingly book “adventure” travel for Gen Xers to commemorate birthdays, anniversaries and other life markers. Why party on a yacht when you can go biking or hiking — maybe in a far-flung destination and maybe in your neighborhood — seems to be the operative thought.
At first blush, Gen Xers’ rejection of their Boomer parents’ midlife crises to strive for a healthier one probably stings a bit to Mom and Dad, but there is a darker side as well. While today’s middle-agers seek well-being, economists point out that Gen Xers face economic realities their parents did not. Many of them came into adulthood in the early 1990s, during a recession, and were starting families and trying to become homeowners during the mortgage scandal Great Recession of the 2000s. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only about one-third of Gen Xers have the wealth their parents did at their age, and many have six times more debt.
Patty David, director of consumer insights for the American Association of Retired People, or AARP, puts it this way. For Gen Xers, the American Dream centers on “well-being, to be healthy and not necessarily worry about the big expensive things and having all the money. … Because they can’t have everything Boomers have, their American Dream isn’t going to be what the boomers’ … was.”
As a proud Boomer watching with great fascination as her massive generation, once the largest in American history, moves through the demographic snake and changes every institution it encounters, I salute Gen Xers for approaching middle age their way. Individually we all do it our way, of course, and there are millions of Boomers living healthy lifestyles and engaging in what is now deemed “self-care.” There are also millions of Gen Xers who may well head to Las Vegas, or at least Myrtle Beach, for their birthdays. And, there are folks in both generations neither buying convertible sports cars nor meditating for hours on end.
Wherever we may be on the continuum, it does appear to at least this Boomer that our children, the Gen-Exers, are copying not so much our choices as following their grandparents, the Greatest Generation. That generation forged by the Depression and World War II and now almost gone, counseled all things in moderation.