We are coming up to the homestretch in this 8-lap race that Erik Erikson called life. The seventh stage is the stage of middle age, what he called the crisis of "generativity vs.
stagnation." What he meant by this was that in middle age, we start to look at what we are leaving for the next generation, what we have accomplished, where we are going before we enter the final stage of life. If we feel we are doing well, are accomplishing good things, we will feel a sense of generativity, a sense of having been productive, of having built a life. We may also have the free time, with the children out of the house, and the career winding down, to be productive in different ways. If we look back and see missed opportunities and failures, if we feel that this is our lot in life and we can’t change it at this stage of the game, we may have a sense that we have stagnated, that we are stuck in neutral and can’t get out.
With the Baby Boomers all hitting these middle years, there has been a lot of focus on areas important to this age group —retirement planning, college payments, leisure activities — Oil of Olay, Viagra. There have never been so many people looking towards retirement as there are now.
This period covers a lot of years with many changes. Early in the stage people are usually launching their children, sending them to college, paying for weddings, helping them with their first apartment, or allowing them to crash back at the family home until they get on their feet and get that first job. As the stage continues, grandchildren may arrive, and with more leisure time that often comes as our careers wind down, it is not unusual to see someone in this stage get enjoyment out of being a hands-on grandparent and helping with childcare.
If one does not have children, the activities may be slightly different, but the outcome the same. If we can’t give to the next generation biologically, by raising and launching our children, we can do it in other ways such as teaching or mentoring, volunteering, or simply living a life that gives back to the next generation through political activism, helping local causes, coaching, or by having a career that gives back, such as teaching, medicine, and the like.
If one looks around during this stage and finds that nothing is inspiring or that life seems to stand still, that is the sense of stagnation that Erikson talked about. The kids are gone, the career is winding down, perhaps the marriage has grown stale or has even ended (sadly, it’s not unusual for marriages to end as the children leave the nest), and the person thinks, "what now?" It is easy to get caught in a rut during this time, to feel that trying something new should be left to the youngsters, but to also fear what will happen as retirement approaches and there is no office to go to every day. These individuals run the risk of being old before their time.
Middle age is no longer what it was a few decades ago. If we think of an iconic middle-aged television couple of the 70s, the Bunkers, we see a tired husband and a dowdy wife. They don’t have many interests outside the family; Archie has worked at a thankless blue-collar job for years to put a roof over his family’s head while Edith stayed home in her apron and made sure that dinner was served on time. When we look back at these characters, lacking any glamour or joie de vivre, and think that they were younger than Susan Sarandon, Harrison Ford, Mick Jagger, and Diane Keaton, and barely older than some of the "desperate housewives" we see a real shift in how the middle years are portrayed. This media shift reflects a shift in the culture as a whole. Middle age does not necessarily mean a paunch and a gold watch or frumpy clothes and sensible shoes.
Middle age may be one of the hardest stages of life, as well as the longest. It is a difficult stage because of the upheaval — launching the children, making changes to career, reflecting on the last half-century, and the like. The current middle-agers have been called "The Sandwich Generation" because as they are sending their kids off into the world and getting ready for some "Me" time, they are often finding that they now have to care for elderly parents. So they are likely to still be dealing with teenagers, college tuition, or aiding in the start of their child’s independence when a parent may fall ill, be widowed, or simply slow down and need more support. Balancing Parents’ Weekend at college or shopping for prom dresses with driving Mom to her eye doctor or helping her with household chores can be daunting.
But middle age can also be a great time. You have paid your dues and can start to focus on yourself again, maybe for the first time in 25 years. If your health is good, you can continue to enjoy the activities you love. I have a middle-aged friend who plays a weekly softball game with men who range from their 30’s to their 70’s. Some of the older guys need substitute runners or they’d never get to First Base due to bad knees and ankles, but I’ve met them, and a few of them are still built like the sensational athletes they must have been 40 years ago. If you have enjoyed a career that has been stimulating, you may want to slow down but teach at a college or work part time. Some people do go into early retirement, but most continue to do something. Some people who retire take on jobs that are "fun" or "low stress" such as at a desk in a library, monitoring the lunch period at a local school, or handing out food samples at the Stop and Shop. Those who are single during this time have the freedom to go out whenever and wherever they please without concerns about baby sitters or helping with homework. My friends in their 30’s can’t drop everything to hang out with me out of nowhere, but my friends whose kids are grown can meet me at a moment’s notice. That freedom that comes at this stage is, as they say in the commercials, priceless.
So, rock on, Boomers, rock on.