The Hourglass Solution

What’s Next for Baby Boomers?

Jeff Johnson, PhD., and Paula Forman, PhD. Wrote The Hourglass Solution, a book that provides Baby Boomers “a guide to the rest of your life.”  Baby Boomers have struggled during this economic downturn; they were deeper in debt than other generations, and are having a tough time finding replacements for the high income jobs they lost.  Many are facing major lifestyle changes, moving in with family members, downsizing to small homes, or becoming one-earner families for the first time in a generation.

Even Baby Boomers who are working are going through a crisis, according to the authors.  This generation (full disclosure: this is my generation) is living longer and in better health than any previous generation.  We are defined by our intense optimism (in some cases, bordering on denial) that may have been based on the fact that we felt we had complete control over the choices in our lives.

This was the first generation that could choose to get married or choose almost any other lifestyle: cohabitation, staying single without stigma, and a hundred variations in between.  We could choose when or whether to have children.  Women could choose to have a demanding career and raise a family; it used to be an either / or decision.   All this choice gave us a feeling of unlimited possibilities when we were young. But we’re no longer young (on the outside, at least.)  We’re in our fifties and sixties, and feeling that the world has changed dramatically.

Some of the social bonds that gave meaning to life are breaking down or changing forever.  During this recession, many people lost jobs, which is usually one of the defining roles in our lives.  Marriages are strained under harsh economic conditions, and childrearing duties are winding down.  In this digital age, community organizations like clubs and even churches are seeing sharply lower attendance and struggling to compete for attention and members.  We are feeling less connected than previous generations.

According to Johnson and Forman, feeling trapped in our choices is one of the leading causes of depression in Baby Boomers.  The MacArthur Foundation conducted a long term study they called Midlife in America.  The study asked middle-aged Americans about their health, habits and outlook as they face the second half of their lives.  One college graduate gave this response to the question: “What are your hopes for the future?”  She said, “To be able to make choices… Not to be in a position where you have to do something because you have no choice.” Many of us can relate.

Johnson and Forman use the hourglass metaphor to describe this pinched feeling for Boomers.  They say that we’re experiencing a high level of angst, feeling trapped by our choices so far and seeing limited options for our future.  We are trapped between aging parents who are having health problems and increasingly dependent children hit hard by the recession.  We are facing the prospect of raising our grandchildren.  We’re unable to downsize or move because our homes are underwater or in a market where sales are very low. Yuck. After reading that paragraph, you’d be depressed too, even if you weren’t before.

The good news is that Johns and Forman have advice to help Boomers explore their options for creating a new life.  “They can do it; they’ve done it at every stage of their lives,” they write. We don’t have to feel stuck; we can slip through to what the authors call “Greater Adulthood,” where we have choices about how we want to live.  And the very act of choosing, they say, will invigorate us and inspire us.  If you’re a Baby Boomer, what do you think?

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