Advice For Gloomy Boomers: We Have A Choice

A green two-way street sign with arrows and the words You Decide
A green two-way street sign with arrows and the words You Decide

Every month, I get a news digest from a fellow boomer expert about the state of our generation. This last stack was particularly gloomy.

• According to a new national election survey conducted by AARP, pre-retirement baby boomers ages 50-64 are more deeply anxious about the economy than both younger and older cohorts. Two-thirds are neither hopeful nor confident they will reach their financial goals and half don't think they'll ever be able to retire.

• In a study by the Pew Research Center, boomers are the gloomiest of all age groups about their finances, leading all the other generational cohorts on reporting that they've lost money on investments since the recession hit. Nearly six in 10 say their household finances have worsened.

• A study by Ernst & Young, "Americans for Secure Retirement," found that middle-income Americans entering retirement over the next seven years will have to reduce their standard of living by as much as well over a third to minimize the likelihood of outliving their financial assets.

But I didn't need the stack of gloomy news to know the toll these tough times are taking on so many of my friends and peers. For instance, there's my friend Francine, a previously feisty woman who always had some promising project just on the horizon. Now she sat before me, crying into her cup of tea, sad, frustrated and resigned.

For Francine, and many others who are hitting the same general wall at pretty much the same moment, the issue boils down to this: They ran out of runway too soon. Some got laid off and are running through savings, others regret not having had children and are worrying about who will take care of them down the road. Others, who are employed, are burning out while running in place, feeling hopeless that they will ever be able to cut back from frenetic hours at careers they've long outgrown.

Aside from telling Francine that I cared about her, and to take good care of herself, I had no solutions for any of the issues with which she was struggling. Because here's the thing: These are all powerful, resourceful, smart grownups who have done everything in their power to address their situations, like downsizing, seeking out over-50 job websites, bringing on expert financial advice and getting involved on the issues like Social Security and Medicare. But beyond that, I had no answers, no road map, not even any advice. I listened and I hugged them goodbye, but I couldn't stop thinking about what more I could have done.

This morning, I woke up with it -- the missing piece. What I realized is this: No matter how much evidence is piled up against us that we have blown our opportunity for greatness, how much fear we have that we are paying for old mistakes, wasted precious time, burned out trying to get the world to do what we want in order to make life less painful, we always have a choice.

The choice before us may not only be encompassed in an action step, such as sending out yet another resume or finding a cheaper place to live. The choice, rather, is broader and deeper -- to use every one of our resources, both external and internal to fight apathy and despair. Of course we should do everything we can to address both our own and the world's situation, but doing everything we can includes choosing to light at least one wick's worth of a candle that the future will find some surprising, unexpected way to dissipate our dimmest expectations. In this, I take my page from the mystics of multiple faiths and traditions who teach us that no matter the circumstances we face, we can always choose to take the leap from victimhood to hope.

We are a generation coming to grips with the fact that things have not worked out as we would have wished. But we are also a generation which has over and over again dealt with challenge and change. Once again, in fact, more so than ever before, spirit is urging us to let go of old expectations, to give up the illusions of mastery that have not, cannot, and will not take us where we want to go.

Sounds daunting? Mythologist Joseph Campbell offers this advice: "When the world seems to be falling apart, stick to your own trajectory, hang on to your own ideals and find kindred spirits. That's the rule of life."

We are, indeed, the product of everything that is and has ever happened to us, including the potential to make both the worst and the best possible choices at any given moment. Perhaps it is a very small consideration, but even one's intention to live with hope may carry just enough weight to make a difference.