Travel and the Thirty-Something Midlife Crisis

Alberta Canada Road

Since Douglas Copeland first defined my generation as Generation X, scores of books, studies and treatises have been written trying to get to the core of who we are. Moving beyond just my generation, Generation Y and now the Millennials are coming into their own, and with this maturity comes a whole host of new issues.

I began my blog in March 2010. It was the culmination of a long-term thought process, a process I went through in hopes of changing my life and coming to terms with what I really wanted.  I knew I wasn’t alone in the thirty-something malaise, but I didn’t think it was a common problem. Imagine my surprise when, upon entering the world of travel blogging, I found an entire community of people who seemed to share the same outlook.

Articles and books have been written on the phenomenon of the thirty-something midlife crisis. Older generations may scoff at the idea, but it is very real and has an equally real impact on our society. What is most interesting is that this sense of discontentment seems to be occurring at an even younger age for Generation Y.

Rather than enter in a long and complex analysis of the sociological underpinnings for this shift in attitudes, it is easier to pinpoint some key reasons. Our generation, unlike the ones before us, came of age in a perfect storm of societal influences. A combination of the burgeoning computer age, a rapid increase in personal wealth and credit and the parenting philosophy that every child is a winner, has helped mold the moral backbone of Generations X and Y. As a child I knew that I didn’t have any limitations, that I could do what I wanted and that if I didn’t like something, I could do something else. Gone forever was the concept that you did something because it was necessary, not because it was enjoyable.

Working 9-5

My father worked for the same organization all his life, as did his father before him. I however have worked for four different organizations in my short ten years of professional life. I haven’t changed jobs so often because I was bad at them or was laid off. I left them because I no longer found them enjoyable. While this concept may not seem unusual to anyone younger than 45, I can guarantee you that older generations are cringing at this attitude. I am certainly not alone in this phenomenon of job-hopping; it’s been widely discussed and researched. But aside from this professional promiscuity, the basis for this shift in priorities is what most intrigues me.

The concept of ‘I will not do that which does not make me happy’ is causing people to make life altering decisions in numbers never before seen. Rather than patiently wait for retirement to see the world, many are leaving behind their lives and seeking something new. But what makes them do this, what has made them so dissatisfied?

Once again, using myself as an example, I have been trying to figure this out. I was brought up in a traditional middle class household, neither rich nor poor. I did well in school and went to college where I also did well. I was on the socially accepted track for those in my socioeconomic bracket. After graduate school, I entered the workforce and did what I was supposed to do. I earned a living, had an apartment, and started the next phase of my life. At this time I was fortunate enough to find my soul mate, with whom I have been ever since – married for all intents and purposes. Both of us now have good jobs, are progressing well in our chosen career paths, own a home, two cars and three dogs. The American dream, right? That was what I had been told all my life would make me happy.

And yet, as I sit here, my partner who is just thirty-one years old is suffering from heart issues due to the extreme stress of his job. His career is literally killing him. He works at least twelve hours a day and when he is at home, usually has more work to do. The only time I see him for more than a few hours at a time is on vacation.  Simply put, even though we should be happy, we are not.

My example, I don’t think, is abnormal. I also don’t think that it is historically unique. I think that individuals and families in the 1950s, ’60s, and so on probably felt the same way. What is unique is that in contrast, I was brought up to believe that if I didn’t like something, I could change it. In retrospect, I don’t think my father liked his job all that much. However, he was brought up in a time where it was instilled in the youth of the nation that what is most important is to work hard, support your family and everything else be damned.

Please don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job and my partner loves his profession, in spite of the aforementioned health issues. But it necessarily begs the question – is this all there is?  Are two-week experiential trips once a year going to be our only exposure to travel for the next twenty years?

Every evening, I take time to feed my travel addiction and read through a variety of travel blogs. I am constantly amazed by and envious of these travelers’ adventures and their ability to leave their lives behind and pursue the great unknown. I have also read many articles by people who feel the same as I, wondering what more there is for us. Some of those individuals have pursued their dreams in a variety of ways, perhaps best encapsulated by Keith Savage in his article The Precipice.

For those of us though who have been in the professional world for ten years or more, the challenge is even more difficult. I own a home, I have dogs, I have a comfortable life that requires both a salary and for my dogs, my presence. As nice as it sounds, I simply cannot say goodbye to my daily life, my furkids and my house and trek around the world. I know that people do it; I do not mean to say that it is impossible. Rather, I am saying that for me, and thousands like me, it is simply not the right decision at this time.

Endgame

Even if it were possible, what is the endgame? Unlike those who are ten years younger, I am at a mid-point in my career. Let’s say my partner and I take a career break and travel the world for a year or two. To what would we return? His career would be destroyed and mine would be considerably derailed. Even though the travel experiences would no doubt be life altering and enlightening, how would we be able to pick up and carry on as if nothing had happened? And why on earth would we want to return to the exact same set of circumstances that made us so unhappy in the first place?

Of course our other option would be a permanent relocation abroad, which is certainly an intriguing idea. However, when you go through life with someone else, both must reach this realization together and I don’t think either of us are there yet.

Windmills

This begs the question, what does this mean for the future, for my future. I too, like Keith, am on a precipice. I do not know exactly what this means or what this entails, but I can feel it, almost like a gathering storm. On the one hand, I enjoy my saccharine, suburban life that I have worked very hard to create. I am blessed with a great job and wonderful friends. On the other hand, my soul is aching for more – for enrichment that conference calls and trips to Home Depot cannot fulfill.

Perhaps I am spoiled. Perhaps my entire generation and those following are simply the victims of our parents’ success. Those who do not make as much and struggle much more than I, do not have the luxury of seriously considering a career break or a move abroad. For them life is a struggle and that is all. Regardless though of what brought us to this point, and whether or not I am spoiled, the fact remains that this malaise is not uncommon and is growing by the year.

I am not sure what this means for our generation, or if it will have any impact on society as a whole. Maybe the thousands, if not more, who feel this way will continue to do nothing and simply slog through through their quotidien routine. Maybe Hobbes was right, that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do not know what will happen as we move forward. To come full circle, I began this blog as a way to add some of the enrichment and sense of adventure that was so lacking from my life. To at least temporarily leave behind the daily life of emails and meetings and enter into one that truly drives me – that of travel – has been a thrilling process. I enjoy discussing travel and teaching others about the wide world around them. Where it will take me, I’m not sure. But I feel that I am finally on a path that will lead me to the answer I am so desperately seeking.

Ultimately, this may be our generation’s greatest challenge. To figure out how to stop tilting at windmills and instead find out where we really belong.

What do you think? Am I being completely selfish or is this thirty-something malaise normal? How do you reach a balance in your life?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

75 Responses

  1. steph_fig

    You took the words right outta my—fingertips. Thanks for this; what an awesome read.

    Reply
  2. Andrea

    I think about this all the time. I did whatever I could to get out of the 9-5 and it’s the best thing I ever did. I still find it hard to travel as much as I want though as I still have certain responsibilities and bills to pay. Life is short though and putting your health at risk for your work isn’t worth it. I was just watching this video which I think is quite relevant: https://youtube.com/watch?v=EhqZ0RU95d4

    Reply
  3. Abby Tegnelia

    Loved this! It’s all so true. The generations are definitely unique. I look at the youngsters, and they leave the office every single day at 5:30. My generation? We worked long hours, did a hundred internships, did anything we could to get ahead. The result? Every few years I take a year-long break. Who knows what the answer is! Have you read Stephen Cope’s book Yoga and the Quest for the True Love? It’s about this. I highly recommend it!!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks Abby, I’ll check that out. So happy this post continues to strike a chord with so many people.

      Reply
  4. ramya

    stumbled upon ur blog by chance…..
    i relate so much to what you have written!!! Glad to know many like this out there!!

    Reply
  5. Jools Stone

    I hear you Matt. In a similar boat, mid thirties, been working in professional jobs for over a decade, always restless, never happy, started blogging this year. But also settled with a partner and can’t commit easily to long term travel or moving abroad, although both are tempting.
    Now I’m working freelance, doing bits of writing and gradually the blogging’s opening up a few opps to travel, which in turn should feed more paid work.
    It’s going to be a long and uncertain road for folks like us I think, but it’s worth it I reckon. You could always set a time limit, give it a year- 18 months and if no further forward go back to a regular life. Trouble is you prob won’t want to go back.
    Well, when you find the answer give me a shout please! 🙂

    Reply
  6. Ree - Little Aussie Travellers

    I know this post is old, but I can’t help but comment anyway!
    WOW, WOW and more WOW!
    It’s amazing that throughout our gen X peers there seems to be so much struggle to find meaning and our place! I thought it must have just been between myself and my friends, we all seem to be a little lost in finding our place, searching for something more.
    Sure, there are the few who have settled down and are happy in the slog, gathering as many material possessions as they can and working their lives away, but for so many people I know, they are still searching, wondering why by our early 30’s we haven’t got it all figured out?

    My husband and I have finally gained the courage to chase our dream, to live on the road exploring Australia (and who knows, maybe overseas one day too!) and our uncertainty is that we’re taking our 3 children with us. Sure it will be the most amazing experience, but I do wonder what we will return to? Where with this path take us? Are we doing the right thing in teaching our 3 children that they really don’t have to follow “the system”.

    One thing I have really enjoyed by discovering other travel bloggers, especially travelling families is that there is so much hope out there, a world of love, respect, joy, and wonderment at the world and it’s people, something I am more than happy for my kids to be a part of.
    My husband lost his mum at 48 to cancer, we were both in our early 20’s and I guess seeing her go through that, we decided before we had children to chase fulfillment over materialism, but it’s hard to stick to that, we own businesses and now need to find our way out of the slog and onto the road, something that we’re trying to do right now.

    Reply
  7. Guy

    I don’t think you can attribute this phenomenon to a particular generation. The romantic notion of the intrepid world traveler has been with us for ages. Either way, you’re not alone.

    What are you doing now? If you’re still on the fence, why?

    Read up on some blogs for people traveling the Pan-American highway. Many of them travel with dogs. If yours don’t take well to road-life you could stay in North America and pass your time in a few landing places. I’d love to have a dog with me on my trip right now.

    As for career, why should you care? Pick it up a year when you’re not in a rut. You’ll be a different person and perhaps better able to steer your career how you want it. Maybe you’ll find a new passion.

    Either way, be realistic about your situation but don’t let nebulous fears of the future dictate your present.

    I recently left my corporate job to follow a whisp of a dream. I couldn’t be happier. For once I look forward to what the future brings.

    So should you.

    Happy travels,
    Guy

    Reply
  8. Martha

    I, too, stumbled across your site and like so many of the folks before – WOW and thank you! I am feeling the same way right now about work and travel, but am comforted to see that I am not alone.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Cheers,
    Martha

    Reply
  9. Journeys and Travels

    matt, I have just written a blog post about what makes me inspired or simply, what inspires me, however, upon reading your post, it enriches me more than that. I am in agreement with you in your thesis about the thirty-something midlife crisis. A few years back, I encountered a book entitled, Quarterlife crisis and it talks about just as what you shared on your post.

    Now, as I live my life at 35, am I happy? Where I am presently working from 8-5 and more so, doing unpaid overtime, is not making me happy anymore. I am just trying to get by until I find the right moment to step out and find my truest happiness.

    This post reminds me of my own humanity when I traveled to Cambodia in search for my self-rediscovery in my most lowest moment in my life, as my marriage crumbles, I need to find myself back. I found it, not on my desks and deadline but on the road. I have found my happiness in the chanced encounters of strangers, making friendship lasts and just plain sightseeing other cultures and experiencing them is pure bliss.

    Now, let me go back, do I need to find a new work that will keep me on the road and by the road, definitely yes. If I will get one the soonest time, I will hitch myself on the bandwagon and explore the world, after all, i live too short a life to waste on my own desk full of stress and stressful people.

    Reply
  10. Christine | Grrrltraveler

    Bravo! Nail on the head.

    I can only speak for Gen Xers but we were always a screwed up bunch with crazy notions of doing things which make us happy and striving for that in our life, even if it doesn’t necessarily make us a ton of money. Philosophical bunch we are & I blame it on all those Ethan Hawke/Winona Ryder flicks. LOL.

    I took the gap career break for almost 2 years knowing I’d be returning to career suicide. Now I’m back and at a fork of what to do? Those 2 years were worth it and discovered where there’s a will, I’ll find a way.

    Reply
  11. Steph

    Ok, so obviously I googled the issue of thirty something midlife crisis and lo it led me here. I am pretty glad that it did. I myself am 34, on the cusp of gen X and Y (dependent on who’s generational thesis you read) with two kids and married. I have seen so many of my female friends go “buck wild” and ruin marriages and relationships while I silently tried to not judge.
    I am sitting here desiring time to myself, free from a job I don’t really care for in management, working hours that, although are flexible I would much rather work less. What is it about our generation where we simply cannot smile and pretend its “allright” like our grandparents.
    I change jobs every three years or so (so far always trading up salary wise at least) but still haven’t found satisfaction. I crave road trips and travel and my own schedule with my own ideas of success. I scream on the inside “screw this mortgage that we REALLY cant afford and all of these stupid cars. F-being a middle class yuppy. I want to be happy.”

    Reply
    • Sam

      @Steph, I think that, maybe the reason “we simply cannot smile and pretend its ‘all right’ like our grandparents” is we grew up in the 1980s and 1990s a time of (general) peace and prosperity in the US. Our grandparents had to deal with the Great Depression followed by WWII. Our parents fought the Vietnam War along with the overall mess of the 1960s and 1970s in the US. We Gen Xers and Gen Yers never had to worry about a draft (even with 9/11), from the mid-1980s to the recent recession, the economy was always at least decent, and a good number of years it was very good. So, I think what I am trying to say is us folks in our 30s now (late 30s for me [so solid Gen X]) have never really ran into overall extended ‘bad times’ in the US, so we might be kind of spoiled to think we can be happy in everything we do. Just some dollar store psychology with a bit of history tossed in.

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        Thanks Sam and I don’t think you’re wrong. I’m Gen X myself and I admit to being VERY spoiled. The Millennials are even worse.

      • Sam

        “The Millennials are even worse.”

        Yeah, darn kids… try surfing the web at 56k… and a cell phone with no camera, or SMS… hey, get off my lawn :)!

      • Matt Long

        There are always SO MANY kids on my lawn! 🙂

  12. Sam

    General comment:

    What about long weekend trips? Take the train to the next big city over.

    The only thing with me is I could not afford to take a year long trip…

    Maybe to ‘find meaning and our place’ join the service… just an idea…

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      It doesn’t have to be a career break, but finding ways to get out there and see the world is an important thing to factor into one’s life.

      Reply
  13. danny

    thank you for sharing. I am going through the same experience myself.

    Reply
  14. Erin

    I went through this as well. Your story was my story. I had a long term partner and a great job in San Francisco and was moderately happy, but thought- Life is too short to be moderately happy and it is not something to simply be tolerated because changing is hard work… But I understand, if it were easy everyone would do it. But as of now- what I am sure of is that every one of us gets one ride per paying customer in this life and at any moment your ride can be up.
    With that I decided 3 years ago it was time to make some changes. I had been tolerating my job which paid well, really liked the people I worked with, but the job was not totally fulfilling and when we all spend so much time, time away from loved ones, and stress and health on something it should give something more than just money back because at the end of my ride am I really going to care that much about how much of it I have accumulated? If I find something I love to do- I would do it until the day I died.
    With that I chucked the job and stepped into the great unknown. The most amazing thing happens when you step off the ledge…. you don’t fall the way you thought you might. Turns out the ground comes up to meet you or you grow wings on the way down. I left finance…. traveled for four months… end up stumbling on a masters program in France for the wine business…. and now write for a wine and spirits magazine in the UK and live in London. Five years ago if you told me I would get paid to travel the wine regions of the world I would have laughed at you…. I know nothing of writing and had no idea I would be living abroad…. But you know what happened? I made a choice not out of fear, it was choice I wasn’t forced into, it was something I proactively did- I MADE THE CHANGE- and that changed a lot for me. My job in finance I was able to go back to for four months between my travels and my master’s program… I could always go back to that life if I needed to or wanted to. If you decide to make changes do it in a productive way. And in a way that allows you to hedge your bets. Rent your house if you can, then you may not have to sell it; try something out- little in this life is permanent and a lot changes and very quickly these days. The global financial crisis taught me that at age 28- people who did work for places for 15 years got laid off anyway. The potential for things at some stage to change and not the way you planned is pretty high as much as in work as in life- so you may as well as do what you love along the way.
    Have faith, and let great things happen- some people are pretty afraid of that. I was too! Because it does disrupt your life when you stop doing what everyone expects you to do, what everyone else does, worrying about other people’s ideas of what success and happiness look like and invest the time to know how you want to define those things- as much in your personal life as your professional one. There were some casualties as well- personally I found I was tolerating my relationship as much as my job and decided it, like my job, was not giving me everything I needed. But at the end of the ride when it is time to get off…. I have no regrets about the things I did, I have no regrets about all things I have been able to do since- I have done more things now then I was able to have ever dreamed of for myself- I got out of the way and allowed for exactly what was meant for me to come for me- rather than forcing it. Pack a small bag- fill it with courage to make the choices that are right for you, the patience to allow for things to unfold and faith that the ground will rise to your feet when you take that first step into the unknown and a strong dose of going after what you want- and do it passionately…. at the end of the day you may realize you don’t even need to leave to go anywhere- but I did and it’s been great- but I did need to change it.

    Reply
  15. Jane

    Love this post. I’m 32, and most of my friends have been experiencing this phenomenon.
    I know I have. Glad we’re not alone.

    Reply
  16. Charlie

    I just turned 31 and stumbled upon this blog after a random google search of something related and it was like I was reading my OWN blog (If i had one, of course). I have this same sense as I sit here at my 9 to 5 thinking about a million other things besides what I’m supposed to be doing. I do did what I was supposed to do by going to school, getting a good job, living the suburban life and all I really want to do is travel, explore new cultures, new surroundings, be out of m,y comfort zone. AKA I want to live life. I don’t want to sit at a desk 9 to 5 five days a week. I dont want to commute day in and day out, I dont want to wake up to an alarm clock every. single. day of my life lol. I want LIFE, sweet, precious, not always comfortable life.

    Reply
  17. Sally

    I read this and was nodding my head in agreement the whole time.

    I came across your blog actually searching Google for 30 something travelers and it was a great read. I seem to be stuck right now and at 37 I am in a quagmire of it being socially unacceptable to just up and go travelling and leaving everything behind. Point being though is I have no responsibilities and am probably at the point in my life where I CAN do exactly that. Taking that leap is the scary part though.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Oh good glad I could help and you’re right, leaps are hard but usually very much worth it.

      Reply
  18. Omar Kamal

    I am very impressed by your post and how really you addresed your problem, our problem in fact. I am a 30 years old doctor in Egypt who just finished my residencey and according to other I am supposed to be living the dream but actually I am always thinking to quit and travel !! I am very confused and I am afraid that our thoughts are not mature enough and I am seeking short term happiness and that on the longer run; getting old, raising children,…etc. , those who moved along their routine careers will be happier while I will get bored after a couple of years of travelling and by then my career would be already damaged.

    Anyway, Thank you on the amazing post. I know it is 6 years old but I found it enligthening.

    Reply

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