I know how I got here, but now what?

40 sign

The number may change but the forces of change do not.

This general topic has been in my head for about a week, and I wanted to write about it but couldn’t find an anchor for the concept. There’s that great line from the Talking Heads song that goes, “How did I get here?” But what I’m experiencing is slightly different from that.

Today I saw this piece in the New York Times about the difference in how people remember themselves from the past and how they perceive their future selves. It’s interesting, though probably not surprising, that studies show that people tend to have a better handle on who they used to be versus the person they will be. The gist is that people underestimate how much they’ll change over the course of a decade, even into their 60s, after they’ve had several decades of experience as an evolving adult.

Here I am at midlife, and I’m a bit baffled by the idea that, like I did when I was nearing my twenties, I need to consider what I want my future to entail. When I was decades younger, I didn’t really think much about being in my 40s, but when the fleeting thought did pass through my mind, I pictured a fairly static and stable lifestyle that I could ride out through my remaining years. Now I realize that this isn’t the case.

For example, as a 40-something, I need to think about my lifestyle (career, educating kids, geography and a whole bunch of other stuff) and how I want to guide it as I become more “mature.” There is the whole retirement thing, but there is also the idea that perhaps I don’t need to be tethered to a particular market (or climate). My concept of the best kind of lifestyle has changed as I’ve worked a family into the mix and developed richer personal interests. My values have also changed, and I want those to be reflected in my life’s work, both the paid and unpaid.

I had a similar decision to make when I chose a college major, and my parameters were different… and so were my influences. I had fewer responsibilities to others, but I also came of age in the 80s, when opportunity had a different ring to it. My parents played a big role in guiding me, and their own experiences colored their perception. Like many people, if I was sitting in front of that book of majors right now, I’d probably make different choices. But given the input I had back then – from myself, my family and the world around me – I can see how I came up with what I did.

One of the points people make in the comments following the New York Times piece is how personality doesn’t change over time. How does that account for the development that takes place in people over time? I think it’s all about context. The core of my values were the same, but how they manifest themselves in my life has changed over time. So, it’s possible that I am made of the same “raw materials,” but time puts us in different situations, teaches us, provides us with different experiences and brings different influences into our lives.

Every generation blames the one after

Courtesy of Time Magazine from 1990

Do you remember being called a “slacker?” Maybe no one used this term to describe you personally, but if you are a GenXer, I’m sure someone said this in reference to one of your friends, roomies, co-workers or classmates.

I’ve noticed a number of reports popping up about the current generation of 20-somethings, and so many of the complaints are identical to the ones made about us 20 years ago.  Young adults are returning to their parents’ homes to live.  The 20-somethings, pampered and coddled as children, and unprepared for life.  This new generation doesn’t have the same work ethic as the previous — they want everything without having to earn it.

A recent post in the New York Times blog Motherlode from a 20-something sets us straight.  These comments cannot be applied to everyone in her generation.  And, I’ll take that a step further… these comments can be applied to any generation.

Twenty years ago, GenXers frequently were cast as a woeful lot.  Kids who should be adults doing things like living in mom’s basement apartment, taking a lower paying day job because it freed up time to play in a band at night and squandering a bachelor’s degree on a job at a gas station in order to escape Midwestern winters.  Two decades later, where are these people now?  Of the three referenced here, two are successful entrepreneurs and the other has advanced significantly in her chosen career.  I know many other stories of humble and questionable young adult beginnings.  From what I can see, how one chooses to spend their years before 30 has less to do with their success afterwards than we sometimes fear.

My guess is that similar comments were made about Baby Boomers in the late-60s and early-70s, kids who spent their time partying and protesting the war when they should have been working in responsible jobs with respectable haircuts.  A walk through The Haight in San Francisco echoes of young adults who eventually moved on and out, creating lives that measure up to the standards of adulthood that we use to judge the generation behind us.

Based on what I’ve seen as a middle-age GenXer, I’m not too concerned about this “entitled” generation.  I worry about plenty of other things in our future, but very little of it has to do with a minority of people who will probably make it okay in the end.

Something To Think About

I’ve always said that one of the best things about being born into my generation is the lack of assumption that the government or a corporation/employer will take care of you.  Check out this piece from Bloomberg on how Gen X feels about prospects in the corporate world.