Once dismissed as the “slacker generation,” Gen X is struggling in middle age to balance endless, full-time work with caretaking both their parents and their children.
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After a few years of limping through life’s obligations, I was recently told that I needed hip-replacement surgery—and that meant I would be sidelined for six weeks. For a second, the prospect of being laid up for over a whole month, forced to be flat-out, beyond-the-pale, fantastically and overwhelmingly bored hung before me like the Holy Grail. What a silver lining!
Alas! In the immortal words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
I can’t remember the last time I was able to afford the luxury of boredom. During previous recoveries from surgery, as a working parent, I’d resumed working, planning, caretaking, and scheduling for others from my bedside after maybe a week. There was no way this time could be different, could it?
When I told other Gen X-ers about the surgery, I was surprised to hear whimpers of jealousy over my medically sanctioned get-out-of-life-free card. Never mind that it meant being maimed to get it. It’s no wonder last year’s SNL sketch equating Covid with a vacation was such a hit—we’re all desperate for a time out. In facing her own major surgery, one dear hard-working freelancer friend who balances her unpredictable work schedule with caring for both her mother and her young son smiled wanly as she said, “At least I’ll get to lay in bed for a while.”
Boredom was her coveted consolation prize.
That’s because for Gen X-ers, who are exhausted, it is. Boredom is a lost art, a luxurious stasis we schedule right out of our lives for fear of losing the valuable seconds we’ve been conditioned to think will make or break us. Sometimes we need a time out. Great ideas emerge from a rested, bored mind. So, too, do some of our deepest personal insights. But to be bored, you have to have time, and we’ve built our lives in such a way that time is the ultimate commodity, and few of us can afford to part with it.
After all, Gen X is the last generation to appreciate the value of boredom. But just because we grasp the benefit of doing nothing doesn’t mean we get to indulge in it. Hustle culture has taught us we need to go-go-go for fear of losing anything and everything. Our perpetually overstimulated brain cells don’t get a breather from the demands of our inboxes and other byproducts of the relentless capitalist hamster wheel upon which we grind.
To be fair, the grind economy is on us, in a way. In the advent of the digital age, we pushed for more flex time and, when we couldn’t get it, leveraged our talents and opted out of corporate shackles—and with it, 401(k)s and other benefits—instead leaning into the freedom of freelancing so the entirety of our salaries wouldn’t go to childcare or eldercare. No longer were we relegating our work lives to offices. Now we were tethered to our laptops and phones 24/7 for fear of losing our income streams.
To think Gen X was referred to as the “slacker generation”—the irony is not lost on any of us. We were weaned on irony. Call me a slacker to my face: A week after my surgery, I had to write four feature articles in two weeks to make deadlines and get paid on time before holiday office shutdowns. Call me a slacker to my face for rallying to send holiday cards and gifts from my spot on the chaise. Call me a slacker to my face for driving to see my mother three states away, and two weeks before the doctor advised so she wouldn’t be alone during her favorite holiday. Surgery was supposed to be my vacation.
We’ve never had it easy. Don’t anyone begrudge us of the cross we bore in graduating from high school and college into an economic recession with few if any jobs available. Rewind to 1990, just a couple short months before the Gulf War, and call me a slacker to my face after I worked more than 40 hours per week at a customer-service job for $7 an hour because that was the only job available.
We just shake our heads while the kids lump all 65 million of us in with our Boomer siblings and parents because we hold the bragging rights to a shit show they’d like to claim for their own. We’re responsible for everyone but can afford less than anyone. Though misleading numbers skewed by the 1 percent—who own more wealth than the entire middle class—say the average 50-year-old American is worth over a million bucks, Gen X-ers make up most of the sandwich generation and, economically, half of us are hanging in there while the other half is totally screwed. Why? We have tons of financial responsibility. If you have kids and plan on helping them with college, the average cost of tuition is $36,436 per student per year, including books, supplies, and daily living expenses. That’s PER YEAR, PER KID. Once they graduate, we aren’t off the hook: An article in Forbes shows that 48 percent of us are helping our grown children financially—27 percent of us are fully supporting them—while 25 percent of us are also supporting our parents.
If the insertion of a bionic joint wasn’t enough to justify sidelining me, when could I be bored? Our parents and grandparents were rewarded with the probability of boredom when they retired, but only half of us will know that luxury. According to a Prudential survey, 47 percent of us know we’re going to retire later than we’d hoped and 40 percent have to work part-time after retirement. Maybe it’s because 35 percent of us have less than $10K socked away while another 18 percent have nothing saved at all. We get promoted less often than Millennials or Boomers. Half of us might own our homes, but we’re also the generation saddled with the largest credit card debt paired with insurmountable interest rates, making it next to impossible to pay it off.
The most boring moments of my formative life were spent being held captive in the backseat of our family car, listening to whatever the radio played, with nothing to look at but the scenery whizzing by my window. It’s why, with my fast-waning parental influence, I’ve been trying to enforce a no-phone rule on road trips, for boredom has bred some of the very best conversations we’ve had as a family. My kids are so accustomed to curating every single moment of their existence that they have no idea how to be bored. They don’t know how to live without the serotonin hits they get from engaging with their phones, or the 6-by-2½-inch portal to the globe. Boredom causes literal withdrawal. These digital appendages afford them the luxury of deciding who they date, what they watch, what they eat, who they communicate with, and how they work in an instant, but leave no room for happenstance. It’s not enough for them to just be because, to them, there is no fate worse than that twitchy feeling they should always be doing something.
What chance will the royal “we” ever have at learning to appreciate the element of synchronicity that threads through our lives if a sense of desperation we’ve programmed into ourselves drives us to Wizard-of-Oz every single second? What magic might happen, what great ideas might we have, and who might we meet if we just stop filling, consuming, swiping, and commenting long enough to look up and see the people, places, and things as they whiz by our metaphorical windows?
I don’t know about you, but I want to find out.
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