Mal Fletcher
Gen-X Marks The Spot: Mid-Life Crises & Generational Change

Some wit once wrote that middle age is when work is a lot less fun and fun is a lot more work. If a new study is to be believed, British people are experiencing the classic symptoms of mid-life crises earlier than ever before.

The concept of a mid-life crisis remains, for some people, a myth, the false construct of a society that’s become much too enamoured with youthfulness and self-analysis.

For others, though, mid-life crises are very real and worrying. They mark the end of the joyous and sometimes painful journey of discovery that is young adulthood and the beginnings of an awareness of one’s own mortality. 

The new report, released last week by the relationships advice charity Relate, found that for many Brits the years between their mid-30s to mid-40s are the unhappiest decade of life. This it said is the time when more people than average feel lonely or depressed.  

For Relate, the survey’s findings suggest that people aren’t waiting until their mid-40s to start feeling middle aged. 

Meanwhile, a report in the Sunday Times this week announced the rather obvious fact that a new generation has taken over the leadership of British politics. These leaders are all in their early 40s. 

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are all part of the so-called Generation X, born between 1961 and the early 1980s. The term was first coined by photographer Robert Capa but made popular by Douglas Coupland in his book of the same name. 

This generation is now coming into leadership in every major sphere of influence in society. It hardly needs saying that in the world of digital media technology GenXers have long reigned supreme. Most of the largest internet-related companies were either founded by GenXers – as is with Amazon, YouTube and Google – or are run by them. 

In British law firms, according to the Sunday Times, the average age of partners is 38 to 40, while the number of FTSE 100 CEOs aged under 45 has doubled since 2008. In education, a growing number of head teachers are in their late 30s to early forties – only 25% are over 55. 

In the entertainment industry, GenX has elevated the skills of the animator and the comic-book artist, turning them into mainstream money-makers. Through Gen-X interest, the documentary movie genre has taken on a new significance in our experience of society and culture and this cohort has initiated major breakthroughs in CGI, 3D and other technologies that underpin the magic of movie-making.  

And the list goes on: GenXers are on the rise right across the social spectrum. 

I’ve been researching, writing about and working with Generation Xers since the early 1980s, when I was a youth worker in Melbourne, Australia. 

I’ve founded several networks and organizations that have provided services to GenXers, in Australia and in Europe. One of these networks grew in ten years to represent some 60,000 teenage GenXers, at a time when my homeland had the highest rate of teen suicide in the world. 

After years of observation and research, several things mark out Generation X as unique. These factors among others will shape the way they exercise leadership throughout our society over the next decade and more. 

Generations are like individuals: they pass through phases, from childhood, to rising adulthood, to middle age, to elder-status. Each generation possesses its own ‘personality’, which is shaped in part by the experiences of its childhood and youth. In a similar way, understanding a generation’s ‘personality’, can help us project ahead to discover something of its future influence.

Of course, when we talk about generational traits we are by definition generalising. Yet those generalisations are important, for they help us ascertain need, aspiration and ambition. 

GenXers were, by and large, born at a time in Western history when having children was all-too-often seen as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. 

Many of their parents, especially the older Boomers, were either too obsessed with getting ahead, or too preoccupied with the angst of their own relationships to share life in any meaningful way with the generation emerging around them. It’s worth remembering that it was during the 80s that the notion of substituting ‘quality time’ for ‘quantity time’ with children took off. 

As a result, Generation X became in some ways the least parentally nurtured generation in recent history. (It was certainly the most aborted.) 

There were no Toys R Us megastores when these kids were small and no Potteresque book industries aimed just at them and their needs. There were certainly no special designations to describe their passage from childhood to adulthood, as had been the case with the Boomers and the new word ‘teenager’. 

It’s perhaps not surprising then that the Relate poll found them citing damaged relationships as a major point of concern in their lives. Around 20% felt that they were closer to friends than family - and a quarter wished they had more time for family. 

This is a generation for whom nurturing and bonding is vital. The TV series Friends remained number one in the US for much of the 90s because GenXers made it so. For them, finding and maintaining nurturing relationships has been a key aspiration.

Perhaps in some unconscious way this was behind the relative ease with which Cameron and Clegg negotiated their way to a coalition. This surely would never have happened under the auspices of their Boomer forebears. 

It is also not surprising that some of their seniors find them, in the words of one corporate headhunter, ‘pushy, ambitious and battling hard to reach the top.’ If the only way to get noticed in a world of Boomer power structures is to make waves, then waves will be made. 

Various studies, including the Relate survey, suggest that GenXers are often more liberal in their attitudes than Boomers – or the Millennials who follow them. Again, a part of this may be attributed to parenting.

The parents of many GenXers were quintessential children of the 60s; wary of ethical absolutes, morally disorientated or too self-occupied to help their kids wrestle with thorny questions. This wasn’t the case in either the Cameron or the Miliband households – which in itself may say something about what it takes to get to the top – but it was the case for many of their peers.

Another reason for more liberal attitudes may also be the rapid pace of change, particularly through technological advance. This was truly the first generation of whom it might be said, ‘the only constant was change itself.’

As a result, Generation X is the ‘whatever’ generation, where personal and social mores are as much in transition as technology; morality and ethics may be interpreted in purely subjective and pragmatic ways. But ‘whatever’ is a sigh of resignation, not a cry for revolution; it suggests a weariness with options, a drive to rediscover some firm, common ground.

More than one GenX leader has told me how their parents, having been raving alternative-everything liberals in the 60s, are now deeply concerned about the lack of moral fibre in society. Their children find this frustratingly inconsistent and often find themselves longing for someone to simply say what they think is right, as opposed to what sounds cool or expedient.

One wonders where our society might be today in relation to family breakdown, teen alcoholism and teen pregnancy, had we Boomers thought more clearly about the future consequences of our ethical decisions. After all, what one generation tolerates, the next will often treat as normal.

Compared to Boomers, GenXers are often less drawn to ideological causes and more concerned about getting a pragmatic result and maintaining relationships.

This lack of respect for pure ideology may prove a point of contention for leaders like Ed Miliband, who must be true to their own generational heritage whilst keeping favour with powerful factions who’re driven by ideology.

Fortunately for Mr. Miliband, his generation is also keenly aware of its relative lack of demographic weight. It is smaller in size than the Boomers or Millennials and is therefore often more open to achieving goals through cross-generational alliances. It knows it has to pull other generations into the process if it is to get anything done.

That’s part of the reason leadership structures in business are flattening out: GenXers naturally bristle at hierarchies, but thrive on partnerships. Alliance-building is a skill that every truly great Generation X leader, in any field, will cultivate.

As true children of post-modernism – and the first generation to be educated in a post-modern way – GenXers are also inclined more toward process than event. If you’re a GenXer, you may find yourself calling into question the views of ‘experts’, at least until you’re given access to the process behind their thinking and conclusions. Once you buy into the process, you may be more willing to agree with the end result.

This too will prove important in the worlds of politics and business. GenX leaders will be under pressure from their generational peers to open the windows on decision-making processes, to allow greater scrutiny from outside the bubble. Corporations will need to become more transparent and politicians more personally accountable.

Whether or not GenXers' feelings of angst constitute earlier-than-normal mid-life crises is open to debate. However, one thing is certain: the balance of generational power is shifting fast across many spheres of influence.

The future we build from here will depend on how willing we all are to appreciate generational differences and to turn any tensions between us into creative ones.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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