One of the things I most admire about the Millennial generation is their desire to make a difference in the world. They are convinced that it’s their responsibility to make the world a better place. Not only that, but they believe they actually can. It’s little wonder, then, that it’s so easy to rally this generation to the sake of causes—climate change or gun control or social inequalities or other matters of justice. They’ve got a high assessment of both their responsibility and their ability.
But the Millennial generation is not as young as they once were. When we think of them, we probably think of people in their late teens or early twenties—those digital natives who have always been more at home with a screen than a book, with Netflix than with Blockbuster. But the vanguard is nearing the end of their thirties and rapidly approaching their forties. And with it, they’re nearing the age they’re likely to encounter the dreaded mid-life crisis.
What’s a mid-life crisis? I’ve had to think about the term a lot as I and my Gen-X peers move into our middle forties and face the startling reality that, in all likelihood, we’ve come to the second half of our lives. A mid-life crisis may not be a diagnosable condition like pneumonia or diabetes. It may not be a condition that everyone experiences or that everyone experiences in the same way. But that doesn’t make it any less real. It describes a genuine and common phenomenon—a sense of despair or depression that settles over people as they realize that their lives are already half gone, that they are closer to the grave than the cradle.
When we are young we have a sense of optimism and a heightened assessment of our abilities. We believe we can conquer the world, or at least bend it to our will. We always know that at some point we will die, but that time is so distant that it’s ethereal, so far off that we’ve still got a whole lifetime to achieve our goals, or to far exceed them.
Then we hit forty or forty-five and realize that life is suddenly half over. We are forced to look at our paltry list of accomplishments, to concede our lack of skills, to admit our increasing weariness, to acknowledge our decreasing strength, and to face the fact that we won’t do nearly what we thought we would do. We won’t be remembered among the greats. We won’t be the subject of biographies. We won’t change the world. Our hearts begin to echo the despairing cry of the Sage: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Different people respond to this despair in different ways. Many try to recapture their youth—they buy a sports car or take up an old hobby. Many try to fight their age—they grow out a pony tail or get cosmetic surgery. Many try to anesthetize their pain with vices—they go partying in Vegas or have an affair. Only a few make it through without some crisis, without some extended time of lament.
Of all generations, it’s the Millennials who have had the deepest sense that it’s their responsibility to save the earth, to better society, to rescue humanity. From childhood they’ve been told that their parents and grandparents broke this world, pillaged its resources, unbalanced its economy, and harmed its people. From grade school they’ve been assured it falls to them to pull it all back from the brink of destruction. They are convinced they are equal to the challenge. An incredible nine of ten Millennials believe it is their responsibility to make a measurable difference in the world, while six of ten believe they themselves will make some great contribution in their lifetime.
And yet for many of them midlife is rapidly approaching. Soon enough, they too will cross that invisible line that divides the first half of life from the second. They too will wake to the reality that for all their dreams and desires, for all their opinions and positions, for all their marches and advocacy, they will accomplish little more than their parents or grandparents. Sure they will right some wrongs, but inevitably they will also wrong some rights. Yes, they will repair some of what has been broken, but they will leave some fresh damage in their wake. With such a heightened desire to make a difference and with such a towering assessment of their abilities, the fall will be from a great height and come with crushing pain.
I really do admire the Millennial generation. We who are part of Gen-X, like the Boomers before us, were mostly just told to stay the course. We didn’t want to make the world worse, but we also didn’t feel it was our responsibility to make it much better. We were just taught to look out for ourselves and our kids.
The Millennials have been charged with a much tougher task and one that is unrealistic. Though some of them will make a great contribution, it will certainly not be six out of ten or even six out of a million. For now they are still young enough to think their day will come, that greater successes are ahead. But we who have been through midlife, or who are there now, had better begin preparing them for the sorrow, the despair, the ugly intrusion of reality, that is looming in the not-too-distant future.