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Book Excerpt:
Midlife Crisis at 30:
How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation -- And What to Do About It

By Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin
Published by Rodale; March 2004
Copyright © 2004 Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin

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The Expectation Gap

Lia recently attended a Women in Radio and Television luncheon, where Barbara Walters discussed a report about the perceived role luck plays in professional success. High-achieving Boomer women thought most of what they've accomplished could be attributed to luck, but high-achieving Boomer men said luck had very little to do with it. Both Connie Chung and Leslie Stahl laughed as they told the group of women gathered there that they were granted their big breaks in television because of CBS's affirmative action program -- "they needed a token Asian, a blonde female, and Bernard Shaw," they joked.

The conversation, lighthearted though it may have been in retrospect, underscores an Expectation Gap between working women of different ages. Unlike the women at the luncheon (and our own mothers), we've never been the only woman in the room, and no one has ever asked us about our typing skills or sent us to fetch them a cup of coffee. In fact, Kerry has had more female bosses than male bosses, Our expectations of how far we could go -- and should go -- as women are rooted in a very different set of cultural assumptions.

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind and someone who knew a few things about hubris and humility, once said, "Life does not have an obligation to give you what you expect." The Boomer women at the luncheon understood Mitchell's truism -- they worked hard, but they saw there were things they couldn't control and could even laugh about the role the unforeseen played in their success. That very important detail seems to be lost on women of our generation. Up until now, most of us have been operating on the assumption that we could be X -- if only we were good enough. Sure, "right place, right time" might help, but in our minds, success is about drive and merit. And we have that part nailed. After all, we've been in Girl Power boot camp since we joined our first soccer team.

But the Anything Is Possible mantra of our empowered youth, however well intentioned, overlooked some systemic roadblocks still looming in our future, leaving us with no one to blame but ourselves when things don't go according to our carefully constructed plans. This is exactly what's happening to college-educated twenty- and thirty-something women, who feel as if all the rules changed at the same time. What's more, the impact of these shifts was exacerbated when they coincided with the unexpected unraveling of the New Economy. As a ubiquitous ticker reminded us that the NASDAQ was tanking, our personal stock was falling, too, in ways we hadn't expected, didn't understand, and weren't equipped to handle. The whole world changed, and we didn't see it coming. The Midlife Crisis at 30 is our collective attempt to regain our emotional footing.

Total Systems Failure

First, there's the bait-and-switch in our personal lives. Single women considered hot prospects throughout their twenties start to feel like spinsters on the other side of 30. As friends start to couple up and get married, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to meet good men. The cool apartments in neighborhoods we're still struggling to afford no longer feel glamorous -- they just seem annoyingly small and lonely. City girls begin to long for real homes with more than two rooms. And the same parents who once encouraged us to live independent lives are now calling us to quote scary stats from a book they read about in Time magazine, that 8 percent of women earning $ 100,000 or more marry for the first time after 30; only 3 percent of that group marry after 35.

And, just when we needed a little help from our Friends, our pop culture comrades moved on with their lives. Rachel had Ross's baby, and Monica and Chandler were looking to adopt. Vogue devoted an issue to motherhood, complete with a cover photo of a supermodel holding her toddler son, and Gucci launched an omnipresent ad campaign featuring the ultimate accessory -- a pudgy, smiling baby. At the same time, Candace Bushnell was profiled in the Vows section of the New York Times, Patricia Field was designing maternity clothes for Sarah Jessica Parker, and the Olsen twins outranked our contemporaries on both Vanity Fair and Forbes power lists. Bridget Jones and her singleton posse were suddenly about as passé as shoulder pads and leg warmers.

At the same time, many of us lost our jobs, and those of us who didn't have been derailed in other ways that had nothing to do with the recession. Young women regarded just a year ago as the office Golden Girls were having a hard time pulling off the transition from protégé to powerhouse. It's acceptable to be the outstanding "little sister" with big ideas at 27, when you are promising, productive, and -- let's face it -- relatively cheap labor, but to institutionalize the next promotion in title and salary is another issue entirely. While old-school rules of corporate hierarchy have loosened up, they haven't gone away, and once you hit a certain rung on the ladder, they kick back in with a vengeance in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Thus, scores of hardworking young women, who signed up for a decade of 12-hour days with hopes that it would all pay off soon, are finding themselves slamming into a wall of corporate politics they never anticipated. The safe meritocracies they thrived in since graduation no longer feel so safe.

Although not everyone is gunning to make vice president or law partner by 30, the pressure to be ensconced within some kind of clearly defined career path by your early thirties is nearly universal. It may be socially acceptable to spend time searching for a professional calling during your twenties, but after 30, that grace period ends fast. Women who have been trying on different careers since graduation now describe feeling an anxious urgency to find one that fits. The Expectation Gap kicks in around this time, no matter where you stand on the corporate ladder.

Even those of us who steered clear of traditional workplaces during our twenties aren't immune to this pressure. We spoke with plenty of passion -- chasing Bohemians who are now feeling the crunch of society -- assigned deadlines more powerfully than ever before. A funny transformation of perceptions still occurs for women over 30. Adjectives begin to change -- "aspiring" actors/filmmakers/musicians/writers are recast as "wannabes" or dilettantes, especially if they have yet to star in or produce their first feature film, get that record deal, or publish their generation's equivalent of War and Peace.

Our generation's Problem with No Name only intensifies after marriage and motherhood. As "children of the gender revolution" -- the largest group of daughters to be raised by working mothers -- we must be on to new, creative ways to better balance our careers and our kids, right? Wrong. Remember that statistic from the census, about how college-educated Gen-X mothers are veering off the career track in record numbers? That's just the beginning of the story. In the following chapters, we will give names to some new balls thrown into the career-family juggling act and answer a question on the minds of many mothers and daughters (as well as economists, historians, writers, and politicians): Why are so many Gen-X mothers quitting their jobs? Is the surge of stay-at-home moms rooted in market conditions, or are we witnessing a generation-wide latchkey-kid backlash?

Finally, world events marking the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium created an emotional impact that undoubtedly contributed to our urgent and collective desire to make sense of our lives. In dramatic ways, a generation of individuals became schooled in collective failure and loss as we confronted an abrupt economic downturn and the events of September 11 and its aftermath. All of us, irrespective of personal choices, neuroses, fears, or regrets, began to realize at the same time that it was time to get down to the very serious business of getting over ourselves if we intend to make contributions that matter.

It was time to grow up.

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Reprinted from: Midlife Crisis at 30:  How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation -- And What to Do about It by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin © 2004 by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at 

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