I posted this in 2010. With last week’s announcement that Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan (born in 1970) as his running mate, I’m faced with my first candidate on a national ticket who is younger than I, this column came once again to mind.
On Saturday, the Labour Party in Britain chose Ed Miliband as its new leader. As a dual citizen with a keen interest in UK politics, I followed the election with some interest, and was not surprised at the result, which had been widely predicted in the days leading up to the party balloting.
But I also greeted the Miliband ascension with a mild degree of chagrin. The new Labour leader was born in 1969, and is more than two years my junior. He becomes the first major UK party leader to be younger than I am (though to be fair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the deputy PM and the PM respectively, are both less than a year older than I.) It is only a matter of time, obviously, before both of my countries are led by men and women who came into this world after I arrived.
I confess that throughout my life, I’ve always felt a twinge of jealousy, however minor, when I see someone younger accomplish something extraordinary. As emphatic as I am that men do well to accept and even embrace aging (particularly when it comes to seeing much younger women as daughter figures rather than as potential sexual partners), for years I was haunted by a sense of not quite living up to my potential. Until recently, that sense tended to be exacerbated whenever I saw someone younger than I was achieving fame and recognition.
I first felt this feeling of jealousy when Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985. The shock victory of the unseeded 17 year-old, still the youngest All-England men’s champion ever, stunned me; the red-headed German sensation was just a few months my junior, but he represented a generational shift away from the Borgs, the Connors, and the McEnroes who were comfortably older than I was. Becker was younger than me, and on the cover of newspapers across the world. My ego, prone to grandiose fantasies, was strangely bruised. As a result of Becker’s victory, I developed a penchant for rooting for the oldest athletes on the field, regardless of anything else. (Hence I’m a Brett Favre fan these days, though the NFL’s only grandfather is also a couple of years younger than I am.)
Perhaps my sense of “not living up to my potential” began even earlier, when my father told me the story of Mozart, who had composed his first serious works at five. I was perhaps seven when I heard the story, and felt an awful sense of having failed at something. I looked worried enough that my father, an amateur musician and passionate classical enthusiast, had to reassure me that he wasn’t expecting me to match the genius from Salzburg.
I thought about Becker and Mozart again on Saturday when I heard the news of the Miliband victory. And I thought also of the many young women with whom I work who suffer from something similar: the terrible sense that they are running out of time.
I’ve written often about what I call the Martha Complex: perfectionism in adolescent girls. One feature of the Martha Complex is the urge to make lists, particularly those that include the ages by which the young woman expects to accomplish key goals. A high school senior might write in her journal that she wants her B.A. by 22, her M.A. by 24. She’d like to meet “Mr. Right” by 25, marry by 27, and have her first child before she’s 30. Often, the chronology is more compressed than that, but the inclusion of educational, romantic, and reproductive goals is very common. Usually, there’s a lot that’s expected by 30!
Though only a small percentage of my students are over 30, many are between 20 and 23. And many of these still very young women are coming to terms with their own “failure” (their word, not mine) to meet the first set of goals on their lists. With California higher education facing round after round of budget cuts, the goal of completing an undergraduate degree by age 22 becomes more and more elusive. Many of my best and brightest students are on five, six, and seven year plans due to financial pressure and the lack of available courses. We counsel them to be patient and proactive, and to let go of their own self-imposed expectations. But as always, that’s easier said than done.
“The list is life.” That’s perhaps the most memorable line from Schindler’s List, the great 1993 film about the Holocaust. Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern means it in one way when he utters those words to Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler. And though I do not mean to compare the struggle of my working and middle-class students to that of Jews during the Shoah, I know that for many of the young women with whom I work, their own lists are extraordinarily important yardsticks for their own lives. This generation of hyper-responsible, hyper-anxious, hyper-achieving young women live out in fear and trembling what feminist psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch described in her seminal Golden Cage: Growing girls… experience liberation as a demand. Years later, Courtney Martin, a woman not even born when Bruch wrote those words, would note that her generation was told they could “be anything” — and heard it as “you must do everything.” For these girls, compulsive list-making (whether in the head or on paper) is a way of life. And once written down, those lists become stern mandates which must be met at almost any cost.
Another friend of ours spoke to my wife and me recently; she’s 29 and has just broken up with her boyfriend, who had been preparing to propose to her. There were many small things that just didn’t work in their relationship, but our friend wondered if she did the right thing. “I was supposed to be married by thirty. If I don’t marry Tim, I won’t be. I know I don’t feel for him what I’ve felt for others, but I wonder if I’m being too picky. Maybe thirty is the time to settle.” We assured her that no, it wasn’t. (I’ve weighed in on that issue here and here.) For our friend, the doubt about leaving Tim was connected to her sense of “running out of time”, which in turn was rooted in her own adolescent expectations of when she would hit the standard milestones of life.
Of course, these lists are external manifestations of an internal anxiety which is itself largely culturally imposed. I don’t want to imply that what these list-making young women are doing is anything other than a symptom of a much bigger problem. But for those of us who do work with young people, we do well to engage them in discussions about their expectations for their own future. Many young men (but by no means all) are so vague about the future, assuming that it will “take care of itself”, that they need a bit of healthy anxiety and inspiration. Their sisters often need gentle reminders that they have more time than they think.
And for those of us hitting middle-age, it’s worth remembering the important lesson we ought to have learned very young: comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for misery and bitterness. Fortunately, my shock over the Miliband election passed in a matter of minutes; the pain it elicited was so minor that it drew forth nothing more than a rueful smile. I am at the stage that countless forty-somethings face: the recognition that decisions are now being made and the world is increasingly led by one’s peers, and in some instances, by one’s juniors. That will only increase with each year. Morose self-condemnation is pointless, and fruitless attempts to prove one’s enduring youthfulness (by chasing much younger women, for example) are destructive and embarrassing.
What we middle-aged folks are better off doing is reminding those whom we know caught in what is often called the “quarter-life crisis” that things can and will get better. The teens and twenties are not the best years of one’s life, not by a longshot. And as many of us can attest, if we had only fulfilled each item on the life lists we’d written when we were young, we’d have sold ourselves short. With empathy, and with wisdom, we need to say, again and again, that life is so much better when you let go of the list.