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Early Midlife Crisis Hits Millennials

Journalist Gail Sheehy on their health and money worries in the pandemic


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Do you remember how old you were when you first experienced symptoms of a midlife crisis? Normally it creeps up sometime between the early forties and mid-fifties, triggered by the awareness of one’s mortality. Forget that timetable.

Under the cloud of fatty droplets known as COVID-19, we are all — from the early twenties on up — potential victims of the virus. Even smart young people are now scrubbing their hands raw and looking over their shoulders for fear a passerby might be invading their six feet of social distance. As part of a national survey I conducted for a book I’m writing about millennials, I heard from many of them.

Emily Weiland, a small business owner from Utah in her early thirties, assumed she had seasonal flu while she was at a trade show in Portland, Ore. Surely not contagious. At another trade show when the COVID-19 virus was just beginning to spread its droplets in Las Vegas, Weiland had trouble breathing and a mild cough.

When her wife started showing symptoms, the couple went into quarantine. But by then, they had already been in contact with thousands of people. They contacted the COVID-19 hotline. Twelve days later, Weiland’s wife was able to obtain a test. They are still waiting for results.

“We’re carrying the most debt in our lives, and there is no work for us in the foreseeable future.”

Trade shows are their only source of income, and shows have been cancelled for the next three months. The couple has invested $12,000 in these shows and have lost $60,000 in projected sales — half of their yearly income.

“Our landlord is unwilling to give us any leniency,” Weiland told me. “We’re carrying the most debt in our lives, and there is no work for us in the foreseeable future. My wife is getting sicker and my mother has started showing symptoms.”

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Here is the most heart-breaking admission of Weiland’s helplessness: “In the depths of the worst fever she’s had in years, my wife told me she cannot see a way we could possibly work through this. She hopes the virus kills her. And I can do nothing.”

Worried for Others

Giving in to a sense of helplessness could put you in almost as much jeopardy as actually being exposed to the virus. Accepting powerlessness begins to physically depress one’s immune system. Taking action can make a difference.

I know from experience. When my late husband Clay [co-founder of New York magazine] was first diagnosed with lymphoma, our physician, who was both an M.D. and a palliative care doctor, strongly advised — even insisted — that we drastically change our lives and find something meaningful for Clay to do despite his illness.

We hustled for a year to find him a new job and moved across country, whereupon he began jumping out of bed in the morning eager to start a new graduate level program in his field of “making magazines.” That lymphoma never came back.

These days, Mike Corbett, of New York City, is most afraid of losing people close to him. He has already lost a best friend to a suspected case of COVID-19. The pandemic is also forcing him to face his own mortality.

At 39, he is among the oldest millennials and narcoleptic. But he isn’t too concerned with his vulnerability. Corbett is more worried about his younger brother, who lives with him and works as a doorman. It’s a job where social distancing is difficult to practice while assisting people with their packages.

As with Corbett, the number one fear of the many millennials who answered my national survey is not contracting the virus themselves, but that they might infect someone they love.

Normally, Corbett would be attending political events during this busy time of year.  He is events director for New York City council member Costa Constantinides, whose territory includes the infamous prison, Riker’s Island.

On March 29, Corbett lost his friend and political mentor, Isaac Robinson, a state representative in Michigan whom he met through Young Democrats. Robinson was 44. Corbett spoke at Robinson’s memorial over the video conferencing service Zoom, since a funeral was not possible during the pandemic.

“I have to say it sucks,” says Corbett. “As Catholics, we do the wake, service and burial. But I don’t think we should be doing it.”

Wondering About the Future

How do you put a midlife crisis on hold? A 31-year-old government employee in Virginia who must continue to report to work tells me matter-of-factly, “There’s a strong likelihood I’ll get the virus, since I’m continuing to go to work but people in my community are not staying in.”

She is hesitant to be around her parents, especially since her father is a cancer survivor. At the throbbing forefront of her concerns is the unknowing: What’s going to happen in the near future and will she have a future? Like hundreds of those who have responded to my queries, she has zero belief in leadership by the federal government.

“There’s a strong likelihood I’ll get the virus, since I’m continuing to go to work but people in my community are not staying in.”

But instead of giving into cabin fever, she took a week of vacation and focused on sewing 100 face masks for her grandfather’s health care facility.

A Need to Connect

Many academic studies report the inner resources people need to mobilize for recovery from trauma cannot accomplish the task alone. Depression and trauma are disconnective disorders. They do not improve in isolation. To fix them, you have to be connected to others.

Fortunately, people across the country, in our primitive need to connect to others, have seized on Zoom. This simple video conferencing platform has been facilitating virtual family gatherings, remote cocktail parties with friends and private date nights. Luckily, this generation is also the most connected digitally, which makes facing an early midlife crisis while in isolation a little easier.

By Gail Sheehy
Gail Sheehy is an icon of American journalism, the author of 17 books, and a groundbreaking pioneer for women. Her landmark work, Passages, was named by the Library of Congress “one of the ten most influential books of our time.” She has appeared four times on The New York Times bestseller list. After writing about adult life cycles for over 50 years, she is currently working on a book about millennials.

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