Generation X: A mid-life crisis
They were the so-called slackers who didn't feel compelled to grow up. Now, with middle age a sobering reality, are their years of underachieving beginning to hit home?
Sunday 23 May 2010
It is the generation that didn't know how to grow up. And now that it has, it isn't happy. A crop of new books and films highlights the plight of Genearation X, whose decades of underachievement have triggered a crippling mid-life crisis.
As Milo Burke, the protagonist in Sam Lipsyte's latest novel The Ask, points out: "the privileged of our generation did what they could, like the rest of us". In the case of fortysomething unemployed Milo, "what they could" amounts to not very much.
Roger Greenberg, Ben Stiller's celluloid alter ego in the movie Greenberg, released in the UK next month, epitomises his contemporaries' angst. His move back to Los Angeles, the city of his youth, goes badly. For the film's slacker audience, watching Ben Stiller, who cut his directorial teeth on the Gen X movie Reality Bites in 1994, playing a 40-year-old was a bitter pill. Greenberg's observations from a children's birthday party that "Men out here all dress like children and the children dress like superheroes" hit a nerve with the jeans-and-trainer wearing demographic. Like them, the three men in Hot Tub Time Machien find life on the wrong side of 40 hard work, so they travel back to the 1980s to relive their youth.
Lipsyte, himself a Gen Xer, said: "[It's] the idea that here in America we have the boomers, who started these wars, and governed the Wall Street world that drove the economy into the ground, and then we have the younger generation, those in their twenties, who get sent to die in the wars, or else come back to an employment wasteland, and then we have people Milo's age, who feel stuck between and are experiencing pressures of their own."
The Independent on Sunday tested his thesis with a straw poll of Gen Xers (anyone born between 1961 and 1981) to see whether the slacker mid-life crisis has hit the UK.
Plum Sykes, 40, novelist
"The problem for Generation X is that either people have made vast amounts in financial services jobs or they've got lost by the wayside. It's blooming difficult to earn a living if you want to be creative, especially in this country. And that makes it harder for us. Speaking personally, my parents were really bohemian, Sixties types who never grew up, so their children are more hard-working than they were."
Angus Fraser, 44, former England cricketer
"When you reach your forties, there's a feeling that your best days may be gone, but that's not a crisis as such. Most of us are trying to do the best by our children, give them the means to do better in their lives, in the current climate, while trying to do the best we can in our jobs. You don't have the time to worry about yourself, never mind have a crisis."
Dawn Airey, 49, chief executive, Five
"We don't have to conform to the old life stages but what we do have to accept is that we are mortal, and there's still a degree of ageism. I think society is developing for the better and not accepting old constraints that middle age would offer. I look at myself and I like to think I'm still a teenager. I don't think I've fundamentally changed."
Konnie Huq, 34, TV presenter
"With Generation X, I think a lot of people don't want to grow up because it's fun to be young and being young is a state of mind. Looking young makes people feel young, so then they dress young, and their tastes are young. I don't know whether it's the media or society, but people just want to look younger for longer, dyeing their hair, having surgery, etc."
Rufus Hound, 31, comedian
"I don't know that Gen X is having a mid-life crisis as much as we've had it proved to us by sell-out rock stars and politicians that, deep down, everyone's an arsehole."
Toby Young, 46, novelist
"The problem my generation has with going through their forties is that it's the decade in which their age catches up with them. They start out thinking 40 is the new 30, only to grudgingly accept that 50 is 50 whichever way you cut it. In effect, they have to age 20 years in 10, and that causes a certain amount of trauma."
Jean-Christophe Novelli, 49, chef
"I feel a lot more composed and far more secure than when I was 25, and the longer I live the more I think how I don't want to go back to that life. I think the older I get it's like cheese and wine: the more mature and the more valuable you become, or the more you are appreciated."
Neil Morrissey, 47, actor
"Our parents were the people who dropped out with the whole hippie thing. So with that attitude – we never wanted to grow up. Of course we have to pay the bills, but once that's out of the way we're still more rock'n'roll than the current generation, who stay at home on their computers. In terms of attitude, we have a lot more fun."
Sarfraz Manzoor, 38, writer
"In my experience, the people who have most trouble growing up tend to belong to the indulged and self-indulgent middle class; they are the ones who have the time to nauseate and irritate the rest of us. Those of us whose lives did not come equipped with the safety net of parental financial support learnt pretty early on that success would follow only from hard work, and navel-gazing was a luxury we could ill afford."
Sarah Beeny, 38, television presenter
"I think everyone is reconsidering why they're working incredibly long hours to pay incredibly expensive mortgages. There's a lot of people considering whether they want to opt out or not. Actually, maybe it's better to go somewhere more relaxed and earn 20 grand a year and just have a simple, quiet kind of life."
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