Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Generation X-hausted

The year was 1982. The movie was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a staple of the Gen X cinema experience. Judge Reinhold’s character, Brad, was sitting in his school guidance counselor’s office discussing his college options. When the counselor realized Brad hadn’t applied to any colleges, she berated him for treating his future like life was all fun and games. This threw Brad into a tirade. He described for her what his days as a high school senior were like:

“I broke up with my girlfriend this
year. I lost my job at Carl's and
two other places. I wake up at 5:30
to work at Mighty Mart, then I go to
school, THEN I go back to Mighty Mart.
I have to pay rent, you know. My
grades haven't been that bad, and
now you're telling me that the fun
is over? Frankly, Mrs. O’Rourke, I'm still waiting
for the fun to start!”

It may be 28 years later, but the reality is that Gen Xers are voicing the same lament in 2010. Only this time, we have multi-generational caregiving to add into the mix.

Many of us approaching or already firmly seated in middle age find ourselves in a “sandwich generation,” the population caring both for aging parents as well as young children, with little or no time to address our own personal issues. But what I’m noticing in my own circles of friends is that the children involved are younger than in previous sandwich generations, leaving us even more mentally and physically strained.

A woman I know is 40 years old. She has one parent in a nursing home with Alzheimer disease and another parent who just suffered some scary cardiac events requiring hospitalization. But she also has three children of her own, the youngest of which is only three years old. And she has a career and a husband in graduate school. And a mortgage. And a tweener.

Another 40-year-old friend recently had a newborn baby who required several weeks of post-natal treatment for a minor birth defect, and at the same time she was trying to help her own mother rehabilitate from a broken hip in a town two hours away…in addition to maintaining her own career, raising a 10-year-old daughter, and keeping her marriage intact.

Yet another friend is 42 and childless by choice, but finding herself in the position of parenting her own mom and dad who have serious financial and health issues, including early Alzheimer symptoms. When the parents refuse to admit they need help, it becomes that much more emotionally draining. “Everything I suggest they do for their benefit, they do the complete opposite,” she said. “I’ve never wanted anything but the best for them…but I’ve become the enemy.”

Could the economic and housing crises of late have come at worse time? Not for Gen X. Twenty-five years ago most of thought that at 40 our kids would be pretty much self-sufficient. We thought we’d be firmly planted in successful careers, our bank accounts would overfloweth, and we’d be spending weekends jaunting off on exciting excursions. We never envisioned losing our homes and retirement accounts despite doing everything right, or losing jobs we’d been at for a decade due to corruption of upper management. We didn’t envision making less money in 2010 than we made in 2000 but being told we better be grateful we even have a job. We didn’t envision unemployed for a year or more. And we sure did not envision pushing our baby’s stroller with one hand and our mother’s wheelchair with the other. Yet, we do it, because that is where we are. And it is who we are. Generation X is resilient, determined, and enterprising.

But frankly, Mrs. O’Rourke, Generation X is still waiting for the fun to start.

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