A Generation X Bedtime Story (July 20, 2010)

Once upon a time, there were three high school girlfriends who planned to grow up and cut impressive business figures. All were students in a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a respected Chicago Public School (that didn’t used to be an oxymoronic statement in the mid 1990s). Each had their own field of study where they planned to make their bones.

Ally, a lover of history and politics, attended the University of Chicago, and graduated in 200o with honors before entering the consulting field with a renowned Windy City firm. She worked long hours but traveled to many places and amassed a solid wad of cash that she hoped would prove to her conservative, immigrant parents that she had, in fact, made it. Meanwhile, she attempted to quash the persistent voice that periodically yelped, uninvited, “but I am not making a difference!”

Becky attended a respected Big 10 University, earning a Bachelor’s in English Literature, followed several years later by a Master’s. In the interim, she told herself that writing was just a hobby, certainly not lucrative enough, and that degree collection was just something to check off her “bucket list.” By way of distraction, she tried to content herself with climbing up the corporate ladder, having reached middle management at a giant non-profit, and the security that comes with it (high salary, 401k, and 5 weeks vacation time).

Carol also attended the University of Chicago, and stuck around after earning her B.A. to take up a law degree. Carol married young and started a family but balanced these demands with those of a well compensated, high power corporate attorney. Like Ally, Carol’s parents were also conservative, hard working immigrants, who looked at their daughter’s full plate and satisfactory income with a strong sensation of pride. But Carol lay awake at nights wondering if her young daughters would ever feel the same about all the time she spent away from home.

Ally, Becky and Carol, as close as friends could be, inevitably drifted a bit in their 20s. Marriages were celebrated, babies born, and relocations carried out. Through the time honored tradition of the 10-year high school reunion, aided by the social bonds of Facebook, the three women reconnected. On a Saturday night in July of this year, the ladies met at Carol’s place for a dinner party. Husbands and children (one of them the unborn baby that Ally is expecting in December) completed the former threesome.

But for these new family members and the obvious passage of time, Ally, Becky and Carol found that their dynamic was relatively intact. Conversation, laughs and intimacies came as easily as ever. However, when the inevitable question presented itself – “So, what are you up to?” – it was apparent for the first time that evening that in fact, a whole lot more than anyone suspected had changed.

Ally relayed the news that several years back, she had left consulting to return to school, earning her education certificate. She now lives in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, teaching math and science to middle school kids. She earns considerably less than she once did, but owned that if she had been honest with herself as an undergrad, this is the career she always wanted. The happy smile that set her face aglow, as she held hands with her husband and discussed the impending birth of their first child, served as testament that Ally had found what she was looking for.

Becky mentioned that she had toiled in a variety of corporate operations positions, with a number of successful outfits that granted her incremental increases in title and salary. Becky would begin each role, flush with enthusiasm, only to find herself curiously bored and burnt out in two years or less. One could, in fact, set their clock by this pattern. In May 2009, after the death of a very close friend, she indulged the long haranguing voice that told her life was too short to let this cycle continue. She left corporate America to strike out as a freelance writer by night, publishing in a number of circles, then took a huge pay decrease to manage communications and social media for a human service coalition by day.

Carol just returned to Chicago from Boston, where she moved with her family to accept a lucrative law firm position. She had lived on a property she co-owned with her parents, and could never understand why she wasn’t happier. A few months ago, Carol and her husband finally figured out that Beantown was a dead end. Carol resigned, sold her share of the property and returned to the Midwest. Her hubby accepted a full-time position which covered the family’s immediate financial needs, and Carol was able to tell her daughters that she’d never miss another minute of their lives.

Meet Ally, Becky and Carol – the anti-hippies. Whereas the flower children of the 1960s have been castigated for fomenting the freewheeling, idealistic social revolution of the time, before promptly “selling out” and morphing into the very institutions they once decried, it would seem that certain members of Generation X are playing out this drama in reverse. Raised in the 1980s “Me Decade,” they went through their formal education with tunnel vision, like good little disciples of Gordon Gekko. “Make money, earn awards, plan for retirement,” was the mantra, and they sure did their best to stay on the train to financial and professional glory.

But at some point, independently, and often in separate parts of the nation, these three woman took a good look inside and realized that unhampered ambition may have been good for the bank account, and great for the bragging rights of their folks, but awful for their souls and life satisfaction.

For years now, the death of idealism has been mostly accepted as fact. But the conversation which exposed these changes in destiny gives pause, followed very closely by excitement. Is this idealism in its new form? Not the college-aged anarchistic and rootless version, which is destined to burn bright before blowing out. What we find instead is a slower, more methodical, but eventually, more certain feeling that we must do more for our communities, our families and ourselves?

It seems there is hope yet – hope for more than a predetermined greedy, lazy, shortsighted, and selfish path through life. Lives are changing one mid-30s crisis at a time.

Sleep well.

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