The classic midlife crisis was always associated with success: the sports car, the fancy clothes, the inappropriate girlfriend, but not anymore. That’s so Mad Men. Today’s midlife crisis involves getting laid off at age 46 and having your well-meaning friends suggest that you get a pink Lyft moustache for your aging, still-not-paid-off car as a way to earn gas money.
Why does the Don Draper midlife crisis seem so ironic and dated? It appears laughable today because American midlife and mid-career have changed so radically in the last few years that it’s darkly amusing to think of what might have been for us. I’m not endorsing inappropriate behavior. I’m just pointing out that, until perhaps ten years ago, the achievable ideal of midlife and mid-career for most educated Americans was one of privilege, success, and affluence. If you wanted it and worked hard for it, you got it. You got the job, the salary, the benefits, the long-term employment commitment, all of the goodies. Not today. Not by a long shot.
What happened? How did the mid-career success that looked so attainable when we were in our 20s become such an illusory mirage, a mean-spirited joke that is hammering our generation into a place of fear and stress? A lot has happened, it turns out, much of which probably could not have been avoided or predicted. But, it happened nonetheless. The Cold War ended. The rise of China happened. The Internet happened. The tech wreck of 2002 happened. The financial crisis of 2008 happened. The breakdown in corporate governance happened.
If I had told you, in 1989, that over the next 25 years, China would overtake Japan as the world’s second largest economy, the USSR would disintegrate – causing a big reduction in the well-paying defense industry, that new technologies would enable real time white and blue collar collaboration anywhere in the world – enabling a vast shrinkage of the American employment base, that financial disruptions would flatten retirement savings schemes twice, that CEOs would face virtually no accountability or consequences for bad decisions and be able to enrich themselves dramatically without any reciprocal loyalty to employees – you would have thought I was either crazy or exaggerating. But, that’s essentially what’s happened.
That’s the bad part of our new midlife crisis. It was forced on us. At least in the Don Draper days, if you wanted to act out, you had the freedom of choice. Skipping today’s crisis is not an option. It’s a very disempowering notion, disturbing perhaps, but think about it: Am I wrong? Surely, the reality is somewhat different for each of us. (I know. Stop calling me “Shirley.”) It’s not as if every American over 40 is desperate and in trouble.
However, I think most people would agree that the risks of career instability and financial reversals are far greater than they were a generation ago, that the potential to get and hold onto a long-term high earning position have been significantly degraded. How secure do you feel about retirement? If you’re not worried, you’re not really paying enough attention.
We’ve been disempowered as a generation. This is troubling. Yet, we do not need to be victims. I truly believe that we can achieve financial security, success, and satisfaction with our working lives. To get there, though, we need to rethink what it means to work. Getting empowered means discovering where we add value in the business world and executing a personal strategy for extracting that value from corporations.
In a lot of cases, this is not going to involve having an actual salary-paying job. Jobs these days for people over forty are a bit harder to find than they used to be and their long term prospects are not as secure as anything we might have imagined a generation ago.
I think self-employment is going to be our ticket out of midlife disempowerment, out of our unwanted midlife crisis. What does self-employment look like for you? You have more options than you realize. Maybe the whole idea frightens you to death. I understand. But, if you look at the alternatives, the idea of supporting yourself through your own initiative and value creation might start to look at lot more appetizing. Are you ready to empower yourself in midlife? Let’s start the journey.
This post was originally published at an earlier date.
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