Talkin' 'bout Our Generation: The Myths Versus Reality
9 experts challenge fictions from intergenerational warfare at work to midlife crisis
You know the stereotype: aging narcissists who’ve lost their creative edge, coasting downhill and taking up space at work as they wax nostalgic about Leave It to Beaver and Woodstock to stave off the inevitable midlife crisis. Or something like that.
To many, the image of the baby boom generation has been reduced to a monolithic and decidedly unsexy demographic. But break down the stereotype and you’ll find little more than a series of myths.
So let’s look at them one by one. Here, nine prominent observers — from the celebrated PBS filmmaker Ken Burns to futurist J. Walker Smith to authors Patricia Cohen and Suzanne Braun Levine — puncture the prevailing myths about boomers and replace them with what is far more useful: the reality.
Myth: We all have to go through a midlife crisis.
Reality: Only if we’re sitcom characters.
By Patricia Cohen
Like alligators in city sewers, the midlife crisis should join the list of modern myths. For more than 20 years, dozens of researchers have been involved in what could be considered the Manhattan Project of middle age — the mammoth, ongoing study known as Midlife in the United States (MIDUS). And what they’ve discovered about the midlife crisis is that those most likely to suffer from it are fictional characters in television shows, movies and novels.
In fact, fewer than one-fifth of actual Americans between 40 and 60 have undergone any sort of crisis, and a mere 10 percent of those crises were related to a looming sense of mortality, the defining characteristic of the midlife crisis. For most MIDUS respondents, turning 30 was much more disruptive than reaching 40 or 50.
What’s more, those who claimed to have had a midlife crisis frequently misremembered the timing — their crises, more often than not, had not even occurred during middle age. As University of Pennsylvania psychologist David Almeida argues, “Many of the stereotypical hallmarks of a midlife crisis, such as the sudden purchase of the expensive sports car, likely have more to do with middle-age financial status than with a search for youth.”
For most of us, says Orville Gilbert Brim, the first director of MIDUS, “midlife is the place to be.”
Patricia Cohen, the author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner; January, 2012), has been a New York Times reporter for 13 years. She has also worked at The Washington Post and Rolling Stone.
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Myth: Our generation is one-dimensional.
Reality: Our story is complex, and it keeps unfolding as we continue to reinvent ourselves.
By Ken Burns
More than any generation before it, baby boomers have been saddled with sweeping assumptions — about our makeup (weak, self-absorbed), our relationship to history (sentimental, nostalgic for either Hopalong Cassidy or Sesame Street) and our motivations (always suspect). Like a massive demographic rat passing through the python of our polity, we boomers are trapped in facile judgments. But even a cursory glance back belies these canards and suggests, in fact, a generation so influential and positive that it is hard to fathom the contempt directed our way.
Sure, we didn’t endure the Great Depression or save the world from tyranny, as the so-called Greatest Generation did. But that generation also prosecuted a Cold War and several ill-advised hot ones; created the CIA, from which I can’t discern a useful outcome; and alternately suppressed and coddled their progeny — uh, us.
Boomers, on the other hand, demanded a history free of the cloying and lily-white fables of a past filled with the Romantic exploits of Great Men. We elevated women and labor and minorities to our pantheon. We made rock and roll the dominant music form for more than half a century. We demanded that women have the right to control their own bodies, that the United States withdraw from an immoral war, that our politics be more transparent. We continually reinvented not only ourselves but also our country. How we live today — with technology, with mass media, with our complicated and increasingly exposed inner lives — it’s all a boomer phenomenon. Then again, we often slacked off, gazed at our navels, and thought it was all about us.
This is the problem with sweeping generalizations: They're false. There’s always another side to the story. When the Greatest Generation fought World War II (and they were self-sacrificing), more than a quarter of all financial transactions — in an economy heavily regulated by rationing — were on the black market.
As the Bible reminds us, "there is no new thing under the sun." That means human nature never changes. Within each generation are slackers and activists, Puritans and the prurient, the greedy and the generous. The important thing is what you do with your time, not the label an accident of birth and history has unfairly burdened you with.
Ken Burns is an award-winning director and producer of PBS documentaries including The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War and Prohibition. His latest film, The Central Park Five, is set to debut this month at the Cannes Film Festival.
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Myth: Innovation is the province of the young.
Reality: Millions of Americans 50 and older are starting their own enterprises.
By Marc Freedman
These days, when jobs are hard to find, especially for older applicants, many in midlife are drawing from their experience to become entrepreneurs. Recent research from MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures shows that 1 in 4 Americans ages 44 to 70 — about 25 million people — are interested in starting their own businesses or nonprofit organizations in the next five to 10 years.
These findings reinforce research from the Kauffman Foundation, which shows that for 11 of the 15 years between 1996 and 2010, Americans age 55 to 64 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity of any age group or shared that distinction. National Journal reports that 9 million of the nation's 15 million small business owners were born before 1965, which means they’re 47 or older.
Later-life entrepreneurship often involves another later-life trend: the urge to give back. Research shows that half of the people who want to become midlife entrepreneurs also want to meet community needs or solve a critical social problem. For more on these pioneering encore entrepreneurs, click here.
Marc Freedman is founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose; and publisher of Encore.org. He is the author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife (PublicAffairs, 2011) and Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (PublicAffairs, 2007).
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Myth: As people get older, they lose their creative spark.
Reality: In many ways, they actually become more creative.
By Sally Koslow
When I was editor-in-chief of McCall’s, throughout my 40s and half of my 50s, my life would have been simpler if all I had to do to mint ideas was to hire a young staff. I quickly realized, however, that people in their 20s and 30s didn’t necessarily gestate lively brainchildren; they often presented shopworn concepts (“Cook four meals from one chicken!” “Make over a room in a day!” “De-clutter your life!”) that just happened to be new to them.
I'm convinced that we get more creative as we age. In fields like biology and novel writing, for example, it takes years to master the prerequisite knowledge, but when — and if — you do, your creativity may reach new heights. Toni Morrison was 56 when she published Beloved, widely regarded as her masterpiece. Many novels and awards (including a Nobel and a Pulitzer) later, Morrison is still going strong, at 81. Her latest novel, Home, made its debut in May.
As Dean K. Simonton, a psychology professor at University of California–Davis, sees it, "We can continue to innovate for our entire careers as long as we work to maintain the perspective of the outsider" — that is, remain innocent and open to new ideas.
I agree. And with experiences and perhaps some success behind us, we can also cop a what-the-hell attitude. More risks = fresher ideas.
Sally Koslow, a former editor-in-chief of McCall’s, is the author of three novels and Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations From the Not-So-Empty Nest (Viking; June, 2012).
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Myth: People lose interest in sex as they age.
Reality: Many enjoy it more, but talk about it less — or not at all.
By Suzanne Braun Levine
Recent neurological studies show the mention of a beloved’s name lights up the same area of the brain in an 80-year-old as it does in an 18-year-old. Sexologists from Kinsey on have reported that the body can experience arousal and orgasm as long as it can experience anything. Those are the facts.
Puritanical shame over sexuality, stemming from deep-seated values inherited from the previous generation, may account for the widespread denial of these facts, as does the pervasive distaste for the image of older folks (our parents?!) “doing it.” When we are the older folks, the shame and distaste confuse our impulses and censor any discussion of our sex lives.
In the course of researching How We Love Now, I talked to hundreds of “mature” women who were having sex and longing for sex — and many were enjoying “the best sex ever.” But whenever I shared that finding, I met with derision, discomfort or dismissal.
When I blogged about the negativity I encountered, I got a wave of countervailing feedback. So far I have had more than 1,000 comments from both men and women in and beyond midlife. When they could speak honestly in the privacy of cyberspace, they couldn’t stop talking — about everything from erectile dysfunction to snuggling to one-night stands. A true picture of what our aging bodies are up to can be painted, but we cannot appreciate it if we avert our eyes.
Suzanne Braun Levine, the first editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine, is the author of How We Love Now (Penguin, 2011), Fifty Is the New Fifty (Penguin, 2009) and Inventing the Rest of Our Lives (Penguin, 2005).
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Myth: Older workers keep young people from getting hired and promoted.
Reality: The current job lock is simply the result of a poor economy.
By Chris Farrell
The catchphrase of the moment is “intergenerational warfare at work.” But the idea behind it — that a fight for jobs and promotions has broken out between generations — is actually popular every time there’s a serious spike in unemployment.
Adding to the perception of friction this time around is fear on both sides. There is a widespread realization among many aging boomers that they’ll need to earn an income well into the traditional retirement years. Meanwhile, younger people are often left to hang out in coffee shops and zap off resumés, or to face mounting frustration in their current jobs because they aren’t moving up the corporate ladder.
Yet the notion of an intergenerational conflict at work doesn't withstand scrutiny. The current job lock is a consequence of a poor economy. It’s what economists call a cyclical (temporary) change rather than a structural (fundamental) transformation. When the economic gloom lifts (I know, it has been like Waiting for Godot), we’ll see an exodus of boomers from their current jobs. One reason: Many are eager to get out. In a 2009 Conference Board survey, just 43 percent of workers 65 and over said they were satisfied with their jobs, down from 71 percent in 1987. Dissatisfied workers aren’t going to stick around the office if they can find an alternative.
Many boomers who do keep working into their 60s or beyond — either because they need the money or because employment gives them a sense of fulfillment — will choose to work differently than they do now. After saying goodbye to their long-time colleagues, they may downshift into part-time jobs, move into less stressful full-time positions, start their own businesses or try encore careers.
Chris Farrell is a Next Avenue contributing writer and economics editor for Marketplace Money, American Public Media’s syndicated personal finance program. An award-winning journalist, he is economics correspondent for Marketplace Morning Report. His most recent book is The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More and Live Better (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
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Myth: Most of us will be more unhappy in old age than we were in our youth.
Reality: You may never be happier.
By Karl Pillemer
There’s a pervasive belief that aging leads to unhappiness. So the findings of a decade of psychological research may come as a surprise: People in their 70s and beyond are as happy — or even happier — than many who are younger.
Although they are more likely to bear the burden of chronic disease and to have lost significant others, older people routinely score higher than those in middle age on standard measures of well-being. This finding has turned up in so many studies that it even has a name: “the paradox of aging.”
In a series of surveys I conducted as part of the Cornell Legacy Project, people in their 80s and older generally held positive views of later life. Rather than seeing old age as a time of decline, many described aging as a “quest” or an “adventure,” involving new opportunities and freedom from the onerous responsibilities they had when they were younger. In addition, older people reported being more selective about how they use their time, concentrating on rewarding relationships and activities, while shedding negative ones.
The sense of a limited time horizon appears to have a positive effect: It allows older people to savor everyday experience and to appreciate “the small stuff.”
Karl Pillemer, Ph.D, is a professor of human development at Cornell University and founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. An internationally renowned gerontologist, he is the author of five books, including 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice From the Wisest Americans (Hudson Street, 2011).
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Myth: Marketers don’t want to sell to people over 50.
Reality: As boomers stay in the workforce longer, they’re an enormously attractive audience for companies pitching products and services.
By J. Walker Smith
As the new millennium dawned, twentysomethings took center stage from aging boomers, pushing them out of the media spotlight. The long first act of the baby boom generation hadn’t ended, but it had lost its audience, and few people thought boomers would star in Act Two. They were wrong.
The global economic downturn changed everything. It put boomers back in the spotlight, as they began to change the rules once again.
Shrinking savings, investments and pensions have left many boomers no choice but to remain in the workforce. For marketers, the current financial struggles of young people make them less attractive. But the longer boomers work, the more alluring they become as consumers, since they are extending their peak consumption years.
The result: In a remarkable reversal of traditional marketing presumptions, boomers are making older people the most attractive consumer group. And marketers have taken notice.
J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of The Futures Company, a global foresights and futures research consultancy. He is a columnist for Marketing Management; a blogger for Branding Strategy Insider; and the co-author of four books, including Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today ... and They're Just Getting Started (Harper Collins, 2007).
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Myth: All of us are fearful of growing old.
Reality: A growing number of us recognize that old age is nothing to be afraid of.
By Dr. Bill Thomas
Many of us fear aging largely because we live in a bitterly ageist society that stigmatizes and belittles older people. The good news is that there is a rapidly growing subculture of independent thinkers who actually embrace normal human aging and celebrate the changes it brings to their lives.
I call them the Enthusiasts, and they will change aging in America forever. The Enthusiasts are taking hold of labels like crone and sage and using them without a trace of shame. They gather in small groups to celebrate elderhood and aging as sources of worth and meaning, and they hold conferences with provocative titles like “The Poetics of Aging.” Their ability to see around the corner in such a positive way is a remarkable gift.
The Enthusiasts view each stage of adulthood as something to be outgrown, like the caterpillar’s chrysalis, and not an end in itself. Still an underground movement, they will soon emerge to help us all understand that, no matter what our youth-obsessed culture says, it is possible to construct a new, entirely distinct and better old age.
Dr. Bill Thomas is a geriatrician and a professor at the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has founded two movements that aim to reshape nursing-home care: The Eden Alternative and the Green House Project. His most recent book is the novel Tribes of Eden (Sana Publications, 2012).
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