I was born in 1965, so this is a big year. You know; half a century and all that. I am the eldest member of Generation X, a much maligned group that was hit hardest by the recession and is the first generation to not reach the social and economic status of their parents, the affluent (comparatively) Baby Boomers.
The big decades for me have been marked by crisis, usually triggered by what my culture/community expects of me versus the reality of my life. Turning 30 was terrible; in my head, I was supposed to be in a happy partnership, enjoying a stable job, drinking wine with my close friends, and wrangling at least one adorable toddler. Instead, I was in a disintegrating marriage, no kids, and battling to be awarded tenure in a place I didn’t want to live long term. My friends were filled with angst and drama, and all we did was complain about Wisconsin and how much we hated most of the people we worked with. So, about 5 minutes after I received tenure, I took off for California, started work at a private high school, watched helplessly as the marriage dissolved and decided I was polyamorous (don’t ask; it’s embarrassing).
Turning 40 was much easier. I had met my true love, married him, become a stepparent, and had a full-time, tenure track job at a local college. It helped that at 40, I still could pass for 28, something that was—sadly—very important to me. The only crisis—comparatively tame, compared to the one ten years prior—was that I hated living in Winnetka. I remedied that by buying an almost 1 million dollar house on a teacher’s salary in those heady days when all you needed was a pulse and any kind of job to get a massive loan. At 41, I was a homeowner, a mom, a wife, a teacher, and there were even friends and healthy parents. I was doing exactly what the culture expected of me, in the acceptable time frame. I fit in, at last! However, Generation X is also defined by their marginality to the dominant culture; the harder we try to fit in to cultural and social expectations, the more we realize that we are fundamentally different from our parents’ generation.
At the end of 2006, when everything was supposed to be perfect, I had a huge crisis. Deep down, I knew that the house was a ticking time bomb. We couldn’t afford it and the cabin I had purchased by taking out money on the previous house. I had built up a lovely, crumbling edifice and hoped it would hold long enough for me to fulfill my fantasies of becoming a famous author or the star of a reality show on the paranormal. In December of 2006, I broke my foot and twisted my ankle as I descending the stairs from the laundry room, and in the process I broke a mirror. “Seven years of bad luck,” I told myself, thinking that was idiotic but still—kind of—believing it. Seven years later, we were forced to sell our home in a short sale. Coincidence?
From 46 onward, it’s fair to say that every expectation that I had for myself unraveled, with the huge exception of my marriage. I had tried very hard to fulfill what I honestly felt that society expected of me. By ‘society,’ I mean the culture of Los Angeles, the mainstream media, my family, my friends (even though they never pushed me in a particular direction; I simply assumed that certain expectations existed and acted accordingly) and everything I was reading about my age, my ‘decade’, and my generation. First of all, the home ownership issue is so engrained in American culture that it dies hard. Second of all, parents assume inauthentic roles attempting to fulfill expectations that we can’t even identify, but direct and define our behavior; and, finally, we fight at work to find ourselves and are bitterly disappointed when work feels like . . . work. Add to that the cultural expectation that women in their late 40s are STILL supposed to pass for 28, and you end up with a recipe for disaster, at least in my case.
My daughter also felt the pressure to conform to unspoken expectations, and this lead to heartbreaking circumstances. When she broke out of the cage that her family and the wider culture had created for her, she found a freedom that her stepmother is still struggling to discover. Ultimately, everything was supposed to fall apart, because the structure of my life was inauthentic, based on false premises regarding what I supposed to do, how I was supposed to live, and even what people expected me to look like. The three of us endured much pain as our illusions about ourselves and our relationships evaporated and left us staring at each other in shock. What happened? We all discovered that our plans and scripts for ourselves made no sense in the world in which we were living.
I am one month away from 50, and this is what my life looks like from the outside: my husband and I are renting a house. Our kid is 19 and leaving for San Francisco soon, so we hardly have any parenting duties left. My job is the same, on the surface, as it was 25 years ago. I am not rich, or famous, I am not Chair of my department or head of anything, or managing budgets or any other grown up job. I haven’t written a novel or published anything outside of the Internet. We pay our rent, I date Ty, I teach Spanish, I hang out with my cat, I write blog posts instead of writing in a diary, I see my parents when I can, I walk around the neighborhood, and I drink lots of tea. For most of the week, I am in the company of people between 18 and 28.
In other words, I am 25 years old.
That is why turning 50 is so utterly strange. That is why I cringe when I see the bags under my eyes and that annoying loose skin under my chin, because 25 year olds aren’t supposed to look so tired and worn out. 50 feels more like 23 or so than any other age I have ever been. My responsibilities are practically the same as they were then. There are no kids to raise, no big upgrades in status and power at work, no mortgage to pay off, no serious threats to my mortality. My parents are still healthy and don’t look or act their age, so for the time being, here I am: at the weirdest age yet.
I realize that this is very temporary. When the parents have their first age-related crisis, when a serious illness hits, when something catastrophic happens to a loved one or to me, then I will feel the full force of my age. At some point, I’ll be pushing my mother around in a wheel chair and watching my kid get married. At some point, all the lotions, creams and cosmetic procedures won’t be able to hold back the years. When all that hits, I’ll feel my age and maybe feel older; my perspective will change, as it always does. I lived through serious illness and faced my mortality at the ripe, old age of 32; so I do know what it feels like to know that your life is fleeting.
In the meantime, 50 is coming fast, and it seems, for all practical purposes, completely meaningless. I suspect that many members of Gen X feel the same way; the strict markers and delineations that separated one decade from another have all but vanished. When you and your kid are listening to essentially the same music, participating in the same youth culture, and enjoying the same movies and television shows, the generation gap hardly seems to exist. The biggest gap I feel is between my parents and me. They have enjoyed home ownership for many decades; they aren’t even aware of their privilege, because they have always enjoyed a high standard of living. My father worked, and my mother stayed home, free to pursue projects and interests without much worry or care. Their world still makes sense, still has rites of passage, a common culture and expectations. Yes, they have to get old, and that sucks for the Boomers; but they have had the consolation of a predictable world and stable roles, both at home and in their community. My parents have been able to comfortably define themselves within a larger context of their peers, and while they might watch Fox News now instead of protesting the Vietnam War, they have all progressed together towards a common understanding of the world and their place in it.
I have no such understanding. I am weirder and more marginalized now that ever, and all of my attempts at fitting in have ended in disaster. The only message that I can take away from the experience of my life so far is that I must stop trying to be like everyone else or adjusting/adapting my character to fit a social or cultural norm. It simply doesn’t work for me. Anything I do in this world of any meaning will be left of center and incomprehensible to most people, and it behooves me to find peace with that. I don’t know if my X peers feel the same way, but I suspect many of them do. After all, we have never really occupied the power centers of our culture. We are the volunteers, the idealists, the ones willing to strike out on a different path, even if that path meanders and doesn’t seem to lead to a clear destination.
Although it is tremendously confusing to live on the margins of the mainstream, still largely controlled by the Boomers and constructed for the Millennials, there is some comfort in knowing that we are free of cultural expectations. I don’t think our larger community really expects all that much from us, which we can turn to our advantage by not conforming to the various myths that pervade our waking hours. We don’t have to be the boss at work (unless we freely choose to), we don’t have to look 28 anymore, we can spit on the home ownership and upward mobility myths, and we can be interesting and quietly revolutionary parents, citizens and role models. We may work behind the scenes, but that is the work that effects real change. We don’t hold up the status quo or even understand it, but neither then do we have to be victims of it.
My 50th birthday might still inspire a certain fear, but it’s more the animal fear that I am closer to death now than I was at 25; then again, I almost didn’t make it past 32, so there is no comfort in youth. I suppose the secret is to live as freely as possible from all the rules that permeate the fabric of our culture. As scary as that feels, it is much scarier to live someone else’s life and wonder, in your final days, why you wasted your precious time.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD