Jan Brady, Gen X TV’s quintessential middle sibling, appears in the introduction to Ada Calhoun's Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. Like Jan, Calhoun believes that Gen X (those born from 1965-1980) have been overlooked by the world, in favor of the more numerous Baby Boomers and Millennials. Calhoun makes some noise on behalf of Gen X with her book, insisting that Gen X women deserve more attention.
For example, Calhoun argues that Gen X is “a uniquely star-crossed cohort” and quotes a “Boomer marketing expert” who believes that “Gen Xers are in ‘the prime of their lives’ at a particularly divisive and dangerous moment.’” And while it’s true that this is a politically polarized era plagued by assorted real-world dangers, those assertions are too ambitious given the proof presented, which includes first-person interviews with Gen X women and experts, along with a round-up of previously reported information.
The book offers numerous examples that mid-life is hard. Calhoun references financial strains, the challenges of caring for children and aging parents (sometimes simultaneously), and biological changes as menopause approaches. However, her examples largely demonstrate that middle-age is inherently challenging, resulting in a “U-curve dip in well-being that occurs in midlife everywhere in the world, including among great apes.” In other words, Gen X may experience it differently, but it’s not clear that we have it worse than generations that preceded or those that will succeed us.
As Calhoun acknowledges near the end,
In middle age, past generations of American women faced a world that could be seen, objectively, in many ways, as more stressful than our own... There may just be something about the way we live now that makes us feel worse.
The book makes an effort to explain why Gen X women feel worse, but the case is weakened by the too frequent lack of qualifying statements. As a writer, I know well the siren call of making broad assertions, but such broad brushstroke writing weakens credibility with readers, who know that life is more complex and also that we may be part of the exceptions.
So, for example, when Calhoun discusses Gen X’s helicopter parenting, as compared to Millennials’ more hands-off parenting, she might have acknowledged that not all Gen Xers, like this writer, believe in hovering. Or, again like this author, that not all Gen Xers have Boomer parents. Or that comments like “even when we were young, we seemed old” aren’t universally applicable. Early in the book, Calhoun writes, “We are downwardly mobile, with declining job stability.” But, as she documents with statistics later in the book, even if the picture isn’t perfect, Gen X is most certainly not universally downwardly mobile.
Calhoun’s memories of major historical events also shape her understanding of how Gen X more broadly experienced those events. But her personal views on events like the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union were so at odds with my own experience that I decided to launch my own online survey via Twitter. Hundreds of replies rolled in, many of them not from my own Twitter followers.
Calhoun’s memory of “self-soothing through dark humor” may have been her experience, but it was not universal. According to the respondents to my Twitter survey, I’m not the only one who remembers the Challenger explosion as something tragic that included adults, including the president, trying to comfort us. As for the notion that Gen X didn’t celebrate “the Berlin Wall’s breaching in 1989 and the end of the USSR in 1991,” because “instead of reveling, we doubled down on world-weariness,” that simply didn’t ring true to me. Overwhelmingly, members of Gen X who responded to my tweet recall those last two events as optimistic historical moments brimming with potential. This is also supported by polling done by Gallup and Pew about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Overall, Calhoun’s book felt like a missed opportunity to be the voice of all Gen X women. Rather than relate to the millions of women currently experiencing midlife’s curve balls through very human, shared experiences, like feeling exhausted or overwhelmed by responsibilities, it sometimes takes a more political turn, as when Calhoun writes, “‘So we're definitely getting our comeuppance now,’ I said of Gen Xers who when they were younger dismissed Boomer feminists.’”
Calhoun’s research for the book also appears to include many progressive authors, but there are numerous moments that might have been enhanced had Calhoun grappled with the deep well of social conservative thought on the subjects she explores. Many conservative women would presumably agree when Calhoun writes that Gen X women “were an experiment in crafting a higher-achieving, more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the American woman. In midlife, many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure.” Calhoun further notes that more choices have not increased women’s happiness—again echoing conservative voices.
But lest anyone mistake Calhoun for a conservative, she notes that women’s declining happiness “is often cited as proof that second-wave feminism was foolish.” A meaningful response to conservative critics, however, would consider whether second-wave feminism—and the closely related Sexual Revolution—were not only "foolish" but rather “detrimental” to women, children, and the institutions of marriage and family, whether intentionally or otherwise. This is something conservative writers, like Mary Eberstadt, have discussed in great detail. Conservative women have also consciously reframed “having it all”—something Calhoun describes “not as a bright new option but as a mandatory social condition”— as “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”
Calhoun cites data showing that mothers of young children would prefer to stay home but doesn’t question why Democratic leaders, like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, try to shoehorn new mothers into the existing full-time workforce. She observes that the work world is not structured in a family-friendly way and that religious communities that previously offered women support have disintegrated, but I wish Calhoun had dug deeper into economist Claudia Goldin’s suggestion that we make “‘changes in the labor market, especially how jobs are structured and remunerated to enhance temporal flexibility.’” A fuller exploration of how work might be reshaped to better accommodate women’s own preferences, beyond freelancing, would have been a valuable use of space. By extension, a fuller discussion of what that loss of community, and even extended family support, means to individual women’s happiness would have been worthwhile.
Calhoun’s observation that “Gen X girls grew up aware that we were vulnerable while being told that we were infinitely powerful” would also be stronger had she included conservative voices like Wendy Shalit, who has written about modesty and the problems that have followed its erosion.
Calhoun relates a story about her friend, the mother of a baby, who is unhappy to discover her husband has ordered a book about ethical polyamory. Calhoun opines, “There’s something so Gen X about that moment. Not only does the woman of the house have to decide what's for dinner and which sink to buy for the rental property—now she must also make the call on whether or not her husband is allowed to sleep around.”
Getting back to Calhoun’s question about why Gen X women feel so unhappy, conservatives like Eberstadt and Shalit might note that such lopsided attachment to monogamy could contribute to a woman’s unhappiness, but that’s not a point she makes.
Criticism aside, the best parts of Why We Can’t Sleep are the nostalgic pop culture references and Calhoun’s reassurance that, “This is a bumpy stretch of life. We should not expect to feel fine.”
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about culture, religion, and issues affecting families. She shares all of her writing on her website.