(This is a rejected magazine article I wrote in late 2007, about GenXers turning 40. Hope you enjoy.)
Boston Birthday Trip
“Happy birthday” to a small and often misunderstood group, the Gen-Xers. Generation X (those born from approximately 1965-1980) is beginning to turn 40, and it seems this generation will do so differently that its predecessors. I’m watching, I know. I’m one of them.
My friends and I who crossed over the threshold of 40 since 2006 have recently completed our virgin year of middle-age. We spoke of it in hushed conversations at first. “Does this mean I’m officially old?” “It seems like my parents were much older acting at 40.” “Why are those narcissist baby boomers still running everything?” We worried. We looked in the mirror. We pondered the ideas of our youth being gone, too little accomplished, not ready for this mantle of maturity to be thrust upon us like a soggy crocheted poncho.
Many of us decided to celebrate, and NOT with over-the-hill parties. One of my girlfriends invited friends and family to a weekend in San Diego. A dozen women showed up and had a wonderful time. A friend trained and completed a 150-mile charity bike ride to mark the birthday. Another took their junior high aged son surfing for the first time. There was an unfortunate trip to the ER, but the kid is fine. I traveled to Boston enjoying the company of ladies dear to me as we discovered a city together.
I also updated my resume and got back into the workforce. A layoff during the dot com bust had seriously hurt my professional ego. I wondered if my career was over at 40, and plenty of people told me it was, when I could manage to get an interview. But as the process wore on, I became committed not to let the business establishment that my generation had scorned as untrustworthy define my self worth. I stopped apologizing and started sharing my enthusiasm about providing valuable experience to an open position. And it worked. Another Gen-Xer understood my story hired me. I still don’t trust that I have any job security or hope for the gold watch in the modern industrial age, but that’s OK. I enjoy my work and will put in a quality work day as long as the position lasts. (PS: Sadly prophetic, this wonderful job lasted 4 years and now I’m into the next one…)
Perhaps turning 40 is different for us because of the cultural influences of our youth. We were born after Kennedy and King and were children during the bicentennial. MTV turned on and the PC entered our classrooms in high school. The first presidential election we could cast a vote in was Reagan- Mondale. College graduation left us in debt during a recession. Cell phones and email accounts were rare until well after college graduation.
I think that waiting to marry and have children a few years later than the previous generation has helped Gen- Xers to feel younger at 40. Very few of the people I know have teenagers yet. Many of us just got done with diapers. A friend just came back from China with a toddler. It’s easier to feel younger when you’re still visiting the playground, zoo and ToysRUs on a regular basis. With modern medicine, exercise and organic food from Trader Joe’s, there’s a good chance we’ll still be able to actively enjoy the grandkids when they arrive sometime around our 60th birthday. By comparison, my parents turned 40 as I left the nest, and some of their friends were already grandparents. No wonder 40 looked different for them.
I remember watching Star Trek as a child and my dad telling me that by the time I was his age, many of the futuristic gadgets would be reality. Bluetooth headsets, space shuttles, a diversified workforce and microwaves have gotten us close enough to see the similarities. Good call, Dad! So I grew up with expectations that the world around me would change dramatically and I’d better get good at adapting.
It was no surprise that the degree I’d chosen as a freshman wasn’t useful for long and I needed to retrain. It wasn’t a shock that the companies with dream jobs at graduation had changed names, been sold to foreign interests or disappeared all together by the time I tried to step into management. We’ve weathered the emergence of the dot com era and the global economy as we built our careers. Several members of our generation helped to create it. Among our ranks are Michael Dell, the inventor of the personalized, affordable PC, Larry Page, the founder of Google, that revolutionized web search , and Pierre Omidyar, who founded the worldwide online marketplace, eBay.
Yes we turned our noses up at the dark business suit and the excesses of yuppie-ism. I’m proud we did. It allowed us to pursue work-life balance, start thinking green, make friends with the Joneses instead of competing with them, and wear more cotton. We feel more responsible for our own futures, and in an age of wild stock markets and malfunctioning government programs, it’s wise to be working on a personal plan B. We wouldn’t call it pessimism… we’d call it realism. (PS: Am I right?!)
So for a generation that was originally labeled as “slackers” and “disillusioned” I think we’ve hit this milestone in a different state of mind. Happy 40th birthday to the first Gen-Xers. Light the candles and smile.
Musical pairing:”Birthday,” by The Beatles, 1968.