Why are so many Gen X women suffering a midlife crisis? Is feminism involved?

Why are so many Gen X women suffering a midlife crisis? Is feminism involved? By Ada Calhoun.

Two children, a career she cared about, even the freedom to make her own schedule — but she still couldn’t shake a feeling of profound despair. She spent months getting a babysitter for her toddler daughter in the middle of the day, using the time to go alone to noon movies, where she sat in the dark and cried. …

Since turning 40 a couple of years ago, I’ve been obsessed with women my age and their struggles with money, relationships, work and existential despair. After deciding to write a book about it, I called my friend Tara, a successful reporter a few years older than me who grew up in Kansas City. Divorced about a decade ago, she has three mostly grown children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington DC with her boyfriend. …

“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a rare break from her demanding job. “Do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?” The phone was silent. Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”

Gen X really begins in 1960, when the demographic bulge after WWII ended:

Today’s middle-aged women belong to Generation X (1965-80) and the tail end of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964).

Gen X has arrived in middle age to almost no notice, and largely unaware of being a uniquely star-crossed cohort. “Gen Xers are in ‘the prime of their lives’ at a particularly divisive and dangerous moment,” author and ­marketing expert Faith Popcorn told me. “They have been hit hard financially and dismissed ­culturally. They have tons of debt. They’re squeezed on both sides, by children and ageing parents. The grim state of adulthood is hitting them hard. If they’re exhausted and bewildered, they have every reason to feel that way.” …

We were an experiment in crafting a higher achieving, more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the ­modern woman. In midlife many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure. …

Gen Xers entered life with “having it all” not as a bright new option but as a mandatory social condition.

We thought we could have both thriving careers and rich home lives and make more and achieve more than our parents, but most of us have gained little if any advantage. Economist ­Isabel V. Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution, told me that a typical 40-year-old woman in America now makes $US36,000 ($52,300) a year working full-time. After childcare, rent and food, that leaves only about $US1000 for everything else. Even women who make much more may feel uneasy about their financial future, stunned by how hard it is just getting through the week, or disappointed by how few opportunities come their way. …

Put simply: having more options has not necessarily led to greater happiness or satisfaction. “By many objective measures, the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years,” the authors of an analysis of Census-style data wrote a decade ago as Generation X entered middle age. “Yet we show that measures of subjective wellbeing indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.” …

Midlife crisis:

As rendered in popular culture, the stereotypical male midlife ­crisis involves busting stuff up — marriages, careers, norms, reputations. Panic may commence when a man starts losing his hair, resulting in a frenzy to unearth college vinyl. Treatment: regular application of younger women and brightly coloured motor vehicles. …

A middle-aged woman’s midlife crisis does pose a dramaturgical problem. Women’s crises tend to be quieter than men’s. Sometimes a woman will try something spectacular — a big affair, a new career — but more often she sneaks her suffering in around the edges of caretaking and work. From the outside, no one may notice anything amiss. Women might drain a bottle of wine while watching TV alone or cry every afternoon in the pickup lane at school. There has yet to be a blockbuster movie centred on a woman ­staring out her car’s windshield and sighing. …

It’s the economy. All that money manufacture and the way the banking system works is having ripple effects everywhere. Money is how we motivate each other and keep score, but it is created out of thin air by some folks:

America’s Gen X has more debt than any other generation — a whopping 82 per cent more than Boomers and about $US37,000 more than the national consumer average. We also have less saved, and women have less than men. At the same time, we face a much higher cost of living than Boomers did at our age, particularly for essentials such as housing.

Generation X marks the end of the American dream of ever-increasing prosperity. We are downwardly mobile, with declining job stability. Many of us have delayed marriage and children and so can find ourselves taking care of aged ­parents while caring for little children — and, by the way, being urged to ask for raises and lean in at work.

Our lives can begin to feel like the latter ­seconds of a game of Tetris, where the descending pieces pile up faster and faster. Worse, at this ­hectic age, we have to make many of the toughest decisions of our lives: Is it time to give up on starting my own business? Is it time to switch careers? Should I get married? Should I get divorced? Am I done having kids? Will I ever have kids? Where should the kids go to school? Do I put my parent with Alzheimer’s into a nursing home, and, if so, who’s going to pay for it? When it comes to realising my dreams, is it too late?

Gen X women had sky-high expectations for themselves. The contrast between our “you can be anything” indoctrination and the stark realities encountered in midlife – when you might, despite your best efforts, not be able to find a partner or get pregnant or save for retirement or own your own home – has made us feel like failures at the exact moment we most require courage.

In 1970, a middle class household in the West got by on one income, and had bigger families.

Today, two parents usually work. We kid ourselves we are wealthier and better off, but we are really just paying off huge mortgages that we incurred by competing against one another for houses. Isn’t it great that interest rates are set by bureaucrats rather than the market?