Can the Gen-X'ers Survive Midlife?

As 40-somethings contemplate midlife issue, it’s time to ask if they’ll be okay.

Posted May 08, 2018

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Pam Druckerman contemplates, with some dread, her own experience of the 40s (and beyond).  Her article coincides with a panel discussion held at the 2018 Milken Institute last week in Los Angeles, where Ada Calhoun’s article on Oprah.com ( “The New Midlife Crisis: Why and How it’s Hitting Gen-X Women”) was the central focus. I had the good fortune to be a part of that presentation, and found it fascinating to hear about how midlife issues are becoming front and center in the minds of the Gen-X’ers. For clarification, the Baby Boomers produced the Gen-X’ers, who were born between the years of 1965 to 1984. The Gen-X’ers were then supplanted by a series of other Gen-types, including Y, Z, and of course, the Millennials. This alphabet soup of generations, Calhoun maintains, finds life particularly hard of they also share the letter the letter “A,” as in “Type A.”

Along with my colleagues who conduct research on personality development, I have maintained for years that the midlife crisis is “neither at midlife, nor a crisis.” There is the infamous “U-shape” (another letter) of happiness in adulthood, based on survey research conducted by economists who ask millions of people to say how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 10. Drilling down into the data, it’s clear that the U is actually not a U at all, amounting to a few ticks in between a very small range of that 10-point scale. With enough participants, it’s quite easy to get almost any correlation or average effect to achieve statistical significance. When, instead, you ask people about the meaning they find in life, or their sense of fulfillment (vs. happiness), the picture is very different. Midlife has its challenges, but most people survive it very successfully. Those who don’t had a tough time throughout their lives. My own research on pathways through adulthood show that there are those who are in a constant state of crisis but that the majority follow a pathway in which they make gradual adjustments across their adulthood years as they find they must adapt to life’s exigencies.

A technical point that also should be considered is the idea that all of this generational labeling has little basis in reality. Lifespan psychology researchers do recognize the need to take into account so-called “cohort” effects in their data.  This means that if you follow up one group of individuals from, say, ages 40 to 50, you would need to compare the findings from them with individuals born in a different decade. The definition of cohort isn’t determined by an alphabetical label, but instead corresponds to whatever the years of birth of participants happen to be. You might end up with so-called “Gen-X’ers” vs. “Baby Boomers,” but very few researchers set out ahead of time to group participants in this manner. Just looking at one cohort, though, doesn’t mean that the results will generalize to others.

From a social class standpoint, you also need to consider the fact that not all people within a particular generational label are exactly the same, defined simply by their year of birth.  The original concept of the midlife crisis had a distinctly upper social class focus.  Consider the stereotypical midlife crisis in which you leave your family, job, and community behind as you drive to Santa Fe in your red sports car. Who has the time, money, and freedom from care to do this? Not someone with two jobs, a family to care for, and a set of commitments that pack each 10-hour day.

Assuming, though, for the moment that generational labels are valid, from the point of view of the Baby Boomers, there’s a certain irony in watching Gen-X’ers get older. Now they’re going to become like their parents and face what their parents dealt when they were raising them. As I sat in the Milken Institute panel, I heard what the 40-year-olds on the stage and in the audience said about their lives and realized that some of the issues they face are exactly the same ones that my generation faced at that age as well, particularly in the intersection between work and family strains. The digital age has made work invade people’s personal lives more and more, and that’s a new feature of midlife for the Gen-Xer’s. Other strains, though, seem to be the universal themes that people in their 40s will face, no matter when they were born.

With all of this as a background, a study by Miami University’s April Smith and colleagues (2017) conducted a study on fears related to getting older in cohorts who were in college in 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012 and then replicated the study among a more focused group of college students in the years 2001, 2003, 2009, and 2012. This is the “time lag” method I was referring to earlier, and as the authors point out, it allows for “the examination of potential influences of cohort/culture/generation on a particular outcome” (p. 656). The authors tested these effects on “maturity fears,” using a subscale of an eating disorder inventory consisting of the following items: “I wish that I could return to the security of childhood,’’ ‘‘The happiest time in life is when you are a child,’’ ‘‘I would rather be an adult than a child [reverse scored], and ‘‘I feel happy that I am not a child anymore [reverse scored].”

The Smith et al. study focused, then, not on specific fears associated with aging, but fears of becoming an adult. Their findings suggested that there was an accelerated rate of maturity fears among increasingly later-born cohorts. As they concluded, “An increasing fear of maturity is worrying, not only because this process is inevitable and natural, but also because a fear of maturity makes aging harder to bear and negatively impacts psychological well-being” (pp. 659-660).

If these so-called emerging adults fear what they’re emerging into as they think about their 20s and 30s, then, the situation should only become more difficult when they get into their later decades. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that, for example, rates of depression show consistent patterns of decrease from the 20s and beyond, as a recent NIMH report shows (see below). There is reason that the 20s can be particularly difficult and maybe more so with changes in the economy. Still, it's important to keep in mind that the Smith et al. study was conducted on college students, who themselves would not necessarily be representative of the general population.

NIMH/NIH
Source: NIMH/NIH

The other possibility to consider in looking at the Miami University findings, is that for later-born emerging adults, as well as for current Gen-X’ers in their 40s, ageism isn’t going any place fast. Even though older adults (including the Baby Boomers) are healthier and perhaps more connected to younger generations than were their own parents, society’s focus on youth has raged on without any signs of dissipating. Ads for cosmetics, anti-aging pills, youth-oriented clothing, cosmetic surgery, and weight-loss products continue to promote an obsession with having a face and body that never grows old.  Ironically, with revivals of some of the sit-coms from the 1980s and 1990s, there’s also an obsession with the past, but perhaps this stems from a similar desire to relive those earlier decades.

To sum up, the midlife concerns of Gen-Xer’s are real, as are the fears of entering adulthood by their younger counterparts. However, the good news is that none of this has to take place with the drama of a crisis. The other good news is that, for people whose crisis signifies an actual depressive episode, there are treatments that work. Being open to your feelings of happiness, and unhappiness, can help you derive feelings of fulfillment from life, no matter what your age.

References

Smith, A., Bodell, L. P., Holm-Denoma, J., Joiner, T., Gordon, K., Perez, M., & Keel, P. (2017). 'I don’t want to grow up, I’m a [Gen X, Y, Me] kid': Increasing maturity fears across the decades. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41(6), 655-662. doi:10.1177/0165025416654302