The Reality of Female Gen Xers Excessive Stress

Ada Calhoun’s book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, and theories have been a viral media surprise. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Herds of middle-class Gen X women (aged approximately 40-55 as of 2020) strongly relate, as do some Gen X men.

Why does Calhoun think so many Gen X women are losing more sleep than other demographics? Let’s look at the verifiable factors she cites. And then with considerable sympathy, I ask how different are the circumstances they face?Documented by interviews of middle-class Gen X women of all races, Calhoun points to:

  • - They feel a huge level of frustration since their expectations of themselves are, and have been off the charts

  • - They are judging themselves on everything, not just one or two areas of their lives.

  • - From early in their lives they were told they could do anything – but then most were not given the necessary level of support to achieve “anything.”

  • - They are burdened by both parenting standards and demanding time commitments from their jobs.

  • - Many are caretakers of both relatively young children and aging and/or ill parents; it’s “the sandwich generation.”

  • - They are deluged by an enormous and growing amount of information to deal with.

  • - Social media posts and photos indicate that others are “doing it all” and are happy.

  • - They are at the age when women go through a lot of transitions.

  • - Gen Xers were left more on their own from a fairly young age than past and future generations.

  • - Most have a large amount of education debt.

  • - The older half of Gen Xers entered the workforce in a bad recession and started behind where they thought they should be.

It’s now a time when “identities,” their own and younger generations’ seem constantly in flux.

What to Do’s: Calhoun’s primary suggestions for how to alleviate the stress and sleeplessness include:

  • - The women need to create a support system of women around their approximate age.

  • - Gen X men (or the women’s spouses/partners) need to do more, not just take credit for the fact that they might be doing more than the typical male.

I totally get why the individual women and media interest in Ada Calhoun’s book and theories has gone viral in all U.S. geographies.

But to me, as a Boomer professional woman who has always worked and also experienced the “sandwich” phenomenon, it seems that much of the described situation is not new, though for some at a higher level of intensity. I do view several items as different from what Boomer women experienced in their 40s:

  • - A big one: education debt.

  • - Their own expectations, including helicoptering and snowplowing parenting. Boomers have been competitive and workaholic, but not as hard on themselves with expectations and fear of failure on expectations-theirs, and those of others regarding them.

  • - Social media and the constant deluge of electronic information; now all ages experience this, but Boomers didn’t have it early in their careers.

  • - Boomers had even less flexibility in work and life and fewer early-career mentors.

Here are a few things to do to alleviate the Gen X anxiety and pressure, especially for the women losing all the sleep:

  • - Don’t expect men to be the solution or blame them so much, except for the legislators who have not been voting for child and caretaker benefits and more flexible policies at work. Men as partners may not even be in the picture, and a blaming posture usually creates more resistance than persuasion, as we have seen with diversity training that feels like blame.

  • - Change the parenting mindset to raise appropriately self-sufficient kids. Let them take some reasonable risks. Don’t “lobby” teachers if you don’t like your kids’ grades, etc.

  • - Advocate for and participate in providing “adulating” and life skills for adolescents and young “adults.” Bring a revival of the benefits of a sense of self-sufficiency to the definition of a competent human.

The solutions are much more complex than these suggestions, but now that Calhoun and others are raising the questions and the problems, perhaps the place to start is to examine habits, internal beliefs and behaviors that are self-aggravating the situations caused by external pressures. As Gen Xers should be positioned in age and experience to be the new or next leaders, this requires more urgent attention.

Related: 7 Ways to Show You’ve Got Energy as a Boomer