Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Q&A with Ada Calhoun

Ada Calhoun, photo by Gilbert King
Ada Calhoun is the author of the new book Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis. Her other books include the memoir Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Generation X women in your book, and why do you see their issues as different from those of the generations surrounding them?

A: My focus was on middle-aged women like me, and most women in that age range are Gen X. But from what I’ve heard elder millennials and younger Boomers have really related to the book too!

The thing about middle-aged women right now is that unlike women who were middle-aged in the 1970s or 1940s or 1910s or 19th century, most of us are working full-time jobs while doing most of the traditional caregiving, often for both our parents and children, while going through perimenopause and dealing with breaking news alerts all day on our phones.

Compounding the pressure, most of us grew up being told we could do anything, which somehow became a mandate for a lot of us that we should do everything.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I interviewed hundreds of women and dozens of experts and read piles of books. A lot of the stats blew my mind.

I was really surprised, for example, that only one in four women our age will out-earn our fathers—that’s in spite of all the strides women have made in the work world and how well-educated we are and how many hours a day we’re on email.

Q: You describe Generation X as "a uniquely star-crossed cohort." What makes Gen X particularly star-crossed?

A: To take just a couple of examples: in the economic sphere, older Gen Xers entered the workforce during the early 1990s recession, followed by a jobless recovery. Some younger Gen Xers caught the stock market highs of the late 1990s, but that was followed by the dot-com bubble bursting, the 2001 recession, and the post-9/11 economy. When we got to home-buying age, the housing market collapsed.

On a personal level, our parents divorced in record numbers. We were latchkey kids when crime was at a record high. The permissiveness around sex, drugs, and counterculture enjoyed by Boomers was gone by the time Gen Xers were growing up in the era of “Just Say No.” As the Kevin Gilbert song Goodness Gracious put it, we were the “clean-up crew for parties we were too young to attend.”

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: A lot of middle-aged women have told me that the book is validating and empowering and that it made them realize they weren’t imagining the pressures, and also that it made them feel less alone. Those are the best takeaways I could have hoped for!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I started some interesting projects a few months ago and then all hell broke loose with family stuff. So lately I’ve been learning about insurance, debris removal, estate law, and other super tedious grown-up stuff. If you see me on tour, please buy me a strong drink.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Some women have told me they’ve started clubs in their towns to talk about the book and the issues it raises, and I’m thrilled to hear it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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