Written by Liza Kaufman Hogan, Next Avenue senior editor
Ready or not, the “slackers” are crossing the threshold.
This year, the first members of Generation X are turning 50. Watching Reality Bites on Netflix in the flannel shirt we wore to our first Nirvana concert won’t change a thing. It’s coming and it must be faced.
My birthday was January 2, making me one of the first of my generation to hit the big 5-0. I’m not happy about it, but working for a website devoted to maximizing life after 50, I might be more equipped than some of my peers to see the challenges ahead.
I always take stock on birthdays, and this time I’m thinking over not just one year but of a decade and a life. As I do, the three questions that seem most pressing concern health, money and values:
1. Am I fit?
Or, to put it another way: Is my body ready for the next 50 years? Like everyone, I want my body to look good (okay, as good as it can), but also to go the distance and take me well into old age without failing me.
The truth is, I am beginning to feel the effects of age. My muscles hurt sooner and longer than they used to after a workout. Eating poorly one night can leave me with a salt and sugar hangover the next day, and I can’t possibly do all of those moves in yoga (Curse you, Crow’s Pose — I mean, Namaste).
(MORE: Do You Tell People How Old You Are?)
Still, it’s not a bad time to be turning 50, healthwise. The digital age has brought tools and resources to help with fitness and nutrition in new ways. While not digital natives, my generation might be thought of as digital pilgrims. We’re less tech-savvy than our children, but more comfortable with online tools than some of our boomer elders.
For instance, I love my Fitbit, a pedometer used to track my steps, the distance I walk each day and the calories I burn. After a year of wearing it religiously, I increased my average number of steps per day to 10,000 and I enjoy comparing how I’m doing with others online.
I set myself a challenge last year to run ten 5K races (#50k) to mark my upcoming 50 years, an effort dubbed 50K for 50Y which I used to raise money for a teen journalism program. I encourage others to take on such a challenge and hope they’ll share their progress on social media using the hashtag. Setting the goal helped me not just physically, but mentally, too. It’s good to feel that I’m doing what I can to get my heart, bones and muscles ready for the next 50 years.
2. Are my finances in order?
How can I save enough to ensure that I won’t become a bag lady and won’t be a burden to family in my old age?
Here’s hoping that I have some time to get my act together on this one. Like many in my generation, I expect to be working well into my 70s. With all of the evidence emerging that working longer is good for our mental and physical health, I’m okay with that.
The related question is: What type of work will I pursue in my 50s, 60s and 70s? Will I continue in in my current field — writing, editing and building websites? Or will I pursue other interests and seek work that would have a direct impact on people in need, such as working with at-risk teens or serving the elderly in my community, things I find myself feeling more compelled to do as the years pass.
As for saving more, it’s hard to know exactly how much I’ll need. Those online calculators that come up with huge dollar figures to save for retirement make me crazy. Who has that kind of money stashed away other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, at 29, is at the youngest end of my generation?
Like most Gen X’ers, I don’t count on Social Security being much more than a lucky-if-it-happens bonus on top of what I need to save through an IRA and 401(k) plan — when I worked for a company that had one of those. I need to be sure that I’m saving as much as I can and not frittering it away on chai lattes and Fine Young Cannibals reunion concert tickets.
3. Have I done enough to help others?
Having spent most of the last 20 years raising two daughters and building a career, I know the answer to this one — not nearly enough. (Does a twice-yearly turn at a soup kitchen, regular carpooling and giving our family’s used clothes to Goodwill count?)
Post-50, I anticipate having more time to spend on volunteer and community activities. How will I use that time? What types of volunteer work are appropriate for someone of my age? Am I too old for the types of community service I did before having children?
Recently, I attended a tutor-training session for 826DC, an after-school program founded by Gen X literary wonderboy, Dave Eggers. It’s popular with the hipster Millennials in Washington. As I looked around these ‘kids’ in their oversized horn-rimmed glasses and wool caps worn in summer, I wondered if I was too old for this line of work.
Time to get out of my comfort zone and forge ahead. Maybe I’ll get myself a pair if those over-sized glasses (but not the knit cap). If I shy away from working with young people due to my age, it will be that much harder for others like me to jump in. Then, no one under 30 will see older volunteers working with children.
I look around and see that friends also nearing, or just past, the 50-year-mark are making significant changes in their family lives to become foster parents or trading pricey family vacations for an opportunity to help a needy student (not their own) through college. What will I do to make a difference and use what I’ve gained over the years to help others?
What’s Next for Gen X?
If boomers made 50 the new 40, how will Gen X’ers approach this milestone?
Will we shrug our way into the next decade — slackers that we supposedly are — obscured by the vocal boomer and ‘entitled’ Millennial cohorts on either side? Or will we learn from the boomers how to remain essentially youthful as youth fades and show the Millennials how to prepare for, and adapt to, inevitable changes in their bodies, careers and personal lives?
I’m not thrilled about turning 50, but it’s time to focus on the future and let go of the past. But first I’m going to see if I can find some old mix tapes (on cassette of course) and, like, chill for a while.
Liza Kaufman Hogan is a Next Avenue senior editor. She is a founding writer and former senior producer for CNN.com and a former lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
(This article previously appeared on nextavenue.org)