I was born in 1966 and Aram was born in 1969 (Generation X is defined as those born between 1961-1981). In many ways we are good examples two different Generation X life paths.
I have always been very successful in my career. I have moved comfortably between jobs and industries, starting out in massage, moving to street performing (juggling), then to winemaking (I have a Bachelor’s in Fermentation Science) then to brewing, eventually to teaching brewing and more recently into software. Even in the software field, which I transitioned to in 1998, I moved from place to place and job to job. I started in Web Development (including a stint at Microsoft) before becoming a manager of developers. Then I shifted over into Sales Engineering, which I really excelled at, both at PeopleSoft and then Guidewire. Most recently I made a change into Product Marketing.
Although I have had the support of a large network of friends and professionals that have helped me in my career, I built most of that network myself. As a successful Gen X’er I knew that I could depend on trusted individuals, but there was no institution or community that was going to help me find my way.
My brother Aram struggled for many years to find career path. He has worked many different jobs but until recently he could not seem to find something he enjoyed that also paid the rent. Aram is extremely gregarious, likable and smart, but he just was not able to line up his goals and desires with his life as it was. And, like most Gen X’ers, there was no institution or community that could lend him a hand.
In many ways we were following the same path, but with different levels of ease and success. Aram was, like me, a massage therapist for a time. Aram also was a juggler/street performer (we did shows together when we were younger). Aram also had a stint as Web Developer during the dot.com boom (he didn’t enjoy the work). But it always seemed like Aram was floating, just trying to find his way, while I always had a sense of purpose and direction. I think this is an important contrast that you see in our generation quite a bit. Those that are comfortable with the fact we are on our own to figure it out, and those who are not. Aram has shared with me that he knew from early on the career path he wanted, he just took a long time to figure out how to get there.
In January when I was laid off from my work at Guidewire, the tables suddenly turned. Aram is in a stable job that he enjoys and takes advantage of both his education (he is an MFCC) and his interpersonal skills. I, on the other hand, am out of a job in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. As the sole support for my wife and two kids, it is a big change for me and my family. And, for the first time, Aram was able to offer me a helping hand, which was greatly appreciated.
At Aram’s birthday party I had the pleasure of meeting many of his friends for the first time. Aram has built a community around him which includes people from his family, work, school and pastimes (he is an accomplished Salsa Dancer). Although there still are not any institutions stepping up to help him Aram made the decision to build his own community and support network. I think Aram would credit this community of friends and family with helping him find his way through his various challenges.
I see this as a defining part of our generation in midlife: the longing for community. Raised to be individuals who made our own way in the world, some of us have struggled and others have succeeded. But all of us have, in one way or another, felt quite alone in our efforts. When I was first laid off I immediately thought of what I would need to do to get by, how long the money would last and what my options were for jobs or business opportunities. I DID NOT think of who I could turn to for help (other than my professional network for a job search) or what institutions could help me get by until I was back on my feet. Being on my own is wired into me and it is a tough habit to break. But I am coming to realize that this difficult time is an opportunity to build community and that is something I long for just as much as my brother.
Aram has been successful at building community in his world, while I have struggled with it in mine. I am extremely well connected professionally, having built up a network of individuals who are confident in my abilities. I also have many friends through the schools that our kids have attended, both in Portland, OR and now in Sacramento, CA. And of course I have my family who still looks out for me. But I have never had a sense of a community that I can depend on when times are tough. A big part of that is my expectation that I would have to make it on my own and should not depend on a group to see me through. Perhaps it is time for that myth to end.
I think the contrast between my brother and me is not particularly unique in our generation. And I also think that there are many Gen X’ers out there longing for community. Some will have figured out how to cobble one together for themselves (like my brother) while others will figure out how to get by without it (like me). The really unfortunate souls are the ones who can’t make it on their own and also can’t find community. But all of them will long for it, and I think that creating community is the redemption that awaits our generation of alienated individuals.