Baby Boomers Face Midlife Challenge

“They believed their good luck would never end.” They are turning 50 – “midlife” – and are shocked to discover that there are limits to life’s possibilities.  They are the Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boomers represent the largest generation in U.S. history, accounting for almost 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.  They have had a major impact on American society as they have passed through every life stage.  The next stage they face is that of midlife.

The first Boomer turned 50 at the beginning of 1996, and the remaining 78 million will observe that anniversary sometime between now and 2014.  True to the example they’ve set for decades, Boomers are passing through midlife in their own unique way, much differently from their parents.

Growing up in the comfortable 1950’s, the Boomers learned to expect unlimited growth and endless possibilities.  For the most part, they were raised with a value system based on a sense of entitlement and individuality.  These values were quite different from those values of generations past.  According to J. Walker Smith and Ann Cluman, authors of Rocking the Ages, there are four important characteristics of the Baby Boomer value system:

1.   Self-absorption: The Boomers (once called the “Me” Generation) have the reputation of being more narcissistic than other generations.  Because of the times they grew up in, they have always been fascinated with themselves.  The indulgence they experienced at home in the 1950’s and the world’s seemingly limitless possibilities created a fascination with self and a feeling of being special.

2. Sense of Entitlement: As a generation, the Boomers see themselves as superior to others.  They have always assumed that they could have life their way and that the rules were meant for others, not them.  They feel entitled to rewards and view themselves as winners.  They expect success and cannot accept failure.

3. Need for control: The Boomers need to feel certain of circumstances in their lives and to sense that they are in control of life.  They have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty.

4. Reflection: Baby Boomers have always valued introspection and take pleasure in asking questions.

For most people, not just Baby Boomers, the lives they experience at age 45 or 50 don’t closely match the dreams they had at age 20 to 30 of “how it would be.”  When people reach 45 or 50 and are even slightly disappointed by their achievements and experiences, their feelings are likely to be compounded by the factors mentioned above, self-absorption, sense of entitlement, and a need for control.

Typical Feelings

According to Smith and Cluman, as well as Gail Sheehy, author of New Passages, people passing through middle age typically experience the following kinds of feelings:

Regret: As people reach midlife, they must face up to the loss of some of their dreams and regret the mistakes they have made.  It is not easy for anyone to face the person one will never be.

Loss: At midlife, everyone has to face the loss of beauty and youth, valued by our society.  In her book New Passages, author Gail Sheehy calls this experience “The Body Blues” or “The Vanity Crisis.”

Meaning: According to Sheehy, the “universal preoccupation” of the middle years is “the search for meaning in whatever we do.”  As they face the fact that time is limited, the Baby Boomers typically become even more intent on this need to analyze and search for significance.

Change: The midlife years can be a time of radical change for many people.  This is the result of endless questioning and evaluation of how one has lived life thus far.  Many midlife crises become mid-life meltdowns, says Sheehy, because some people react to feelings of emptiness or disillusionment by destroying everything they have built.

What Can Help?

Taking the time to assess how life is going at this point can result in benefits such as these:

  • It can help in identifying and intensifying inner strengths.
  • It can help in finding one’s own voice and manner of personal expression.
  • It can help in the process of accepting one’s changing physical self.
  • It can provide an opportunity to forgive those with whom there have been angry feelings.
  • It can help one find ways to reduce stress.
  • It can help with learning to simplify one’s life.
  • It can reenergize a person in preparation for the second half of life.

The honest answering of the questions listed below can help significantly with the transition into midlife.  It is a list of unfinished sentences that will help one assess his life to date.  The items on this list provide a framework for conducting a self-assessment and providing a glimpse of where one should be heading during the next segment of life:

  • My most important accomplishments are…..
  • I want to change the following things about my life…..
  • If I knew I couldn’t fail, I would…..
  • I want to clean up these messes…..
  • Things I want to let go of…..
  • Things I want to keep…..
  • I want to have these experiences…..
  • I would like my epitaph to say…..

It’s normal to have both good and bad feelings about the process of growing older.  Most people, for instance, feel good about the fact that they are alive and well.  But alongside these feelings of satisfaction, there may also be a keen sense of disappointment, futility, or sadness.  Feelings of anger or disappointment about how one’s life has turned out, even though most aspects of one’s life have been positive, are not uncommon.  Many people with feelings like these ignore them, hoping they will pass.  And sometimes the feelings do pass.  But there also exists an opportunity to face these feelings and explore them more fully.

Here are some proactive steps one can take to emerge from the throes of midlife with renewed enthusiasm and a positive outlook:

Learn to better manage stress. You can learn proven techniques for calming and relaxing yourself.  Consider taking a stress management class or buying a set of relaxation tapes.

Develop your life around things you can control. Learn to recognize what you can control and what you can’t.  Avoid spending too much effort on situations that won’t pay off for you.

Learn self-acceptance. Instead of rejecting the parts of yourself that you don’t like, learn to manage them more productively.

Focus on the future, not the past. Depressed people tend to be focused on the past.  People who set goals and focus on the future tend to be more positive about life.

Develop a sense of purpose. Many people who feel lost or sad, or down lack a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives.  This means they have no goals and nothing in the future drawing them forward.  To ward off this feeling, develop a stronger sense of purpose and meaning.

Build positive and healthy relationships. Think about what you need from others in relationships.  Learn to read people and trust your instincts about whether they are good for you.

Avoid isolation. Talk to people about what’s going on with you.  If you keep your thoughts to yourself, you may be unaware that they are distorted.  If you share them with another person, you can become more objective.

It is possible for the high expectations of life held by Baby Boomers during their 20’s and 30’s to continue during the midlife transition, as well as throughout the entire life cycle.  By making a few necessary changes in old habits, mid-lifers can look forward to what Gail Sheehy has called the Flourishing 40’s, Flaming 50’s and Serene 60’s.  Maybe Boomers have additional new categories to look forward to, like the Sexy 70’s, the Exciting 80’s, and perhaps even the Never-better 90’s!  Why not?  Aren’t we entitled?

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