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Why We Can’t Sleep

Women’s New Midlife Crisis

By Ada Calhoun
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Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun

Why We Can’t Sleep (2020) explores the question of why American women from Generation X are experiencing a midlife crisis. These women were sold the story that nothing was stopping them from achieving their wildest dreams, when in reality they’ve faced enormous challenges to get ahead. Not only did they graduate into a disastrous job market, they also face gender and age discrimination and all too often end up having to care for young children and elderly parents simultaneously. Everything they’ve achieved has been against enormous odds. 

Key idea 1 of 9

Generation X women were told they could achieve anything – but the dream didn’t measure up to reality.

Every girl who grew up in America in the 1980s is familiar with the Enjoli perfume ad. It showed a voraciously energetic blonde woman exchanging a smart business suit for some homey clothes while she cooks dinner for her family, then transitioning into a femme fatale in a cocktail dress poised to seduce her husband. And she seemed to retain her buoyant energy throughout!

This ad encapsulates the dream of “having it all” that American women born into Generation X grew up with, a promise that women can do and be anything. They didn’t have to be nurses; they could be doctors instead. They didn’t have to settle for being a secretary when they could be the CEO.

This promise was tremendously exciting, and showed the progress of second-wave feminists. These women achieved wins like passing the federal law Title IX in 1972, which proclaimed that girls could no longer be discriminated against in federally-funded educational programs.

But these new possibilities also came with tremendous pressure. The promise that girls could do everything morphed into an imperative. Girls must do everything. Now that women had these freedoms, there was theoretically nothing stopping them achieving their dreams except a lack of imagination or unwillingness to put in the work.

However, women born into Generation X have faced structural barriers to achieving their ambitions that have nothing to do with their individual qualities or drive. For one thing, they grew up through successive recessions which caused economic precarity and job insecurity, meaning that women who grew up in this generation are often saddled with enormous amounts of debt. For another thing, gender roles haven’t changed to mirror new possibilities that women have in the workplace. 

Saying that women are free to do anything while ignoring the enormous challenges they face creates unrealistic expectations. It also creates a culture of shame. Many women raised in this era have internalized the narrative that their lives are full of endless possibilities. They blame themselves when they aren’t able to achieve everything they’d hoped for, much less live up to the Enjoli perfume role model they grew up with.

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