New status symbols of middle age

The last time I wrote a post with this title, I wrote that women need a stay-at-home husband. And clearly, I was wrong, because later research showed that women who are breadwinners with stay-at-home husbands are headed for divorce.

And so was I.

So I think what I’m best at is showing what we think we want, regardless of whether it’s actually good to want these things.

1. A traditional marriage
You probably know that men report being a few inches taller than they are, and tall women report being a few inches shorter than they are. But I was really surprised to hear that in marriages where the wife outearns the husband, the couple tries to disguise it: men report earning more than they do and women report earning less than they do.

By the time Gen Xers were middle-aged, most couples had decided that a traditional, home-based role worked best for them. Younger couples agree and view non-traditional marriages as a failed Gen X experiment that Millennials want nothing to do with.

2. Friends who tell you the truth
Convenience friend” first appears in Urban Dictionary in 2006 in the context of dorm rooms, but at this point, it’s clear that all parent friends are convenience friends. Children take up more and more of your time until all your friends revolve around your kids’ mutual activities. And friends are temporary for your moment in time: IVF, divorce, a year abroad, etc.

The trophy friend is one who cares enough about you to be honest. This is no small feat because honesty is a lot of work for someone who’s in your life only temporarily.

Abigail Disney looks for trophy friends, which, in her case, are people who are honest with her even though that means offending someone who is really rich. Abigail joined a board just to be around a woman who had a history of calling out Abigail for being rude.

3. A side job
The stay-at-home spouse can have a side job if they don’t need to make money and if they can have a nanny. The side job is really about spending money in order to stay engaged in the world.

The worst of these side jobs is a book. It satisfies people who miss the external validation of report cards, blue ribbons, and class rank. Having a book published is like saying, “people think I’m smart.” And like a trophy, people see only the glistening gold, not the very low hurdle you jumped over to get the prize.

The best of the side jobs is a startup funded by your spouse or your spouse’s friends. You can have an office for your nanny. Or you can open a little shop, or teach as an adjunct professor. In the world of normal people, when you do stuff that doesn’t make money it’s a hobby. But in the world of rich stay-at-home spouses, it’s a career.

4. A home in a smallish city
Manhattan is a terrible place to raise kids. Click that link for analysis about how NYC kids give up more in cost of living than they gain in access to opportunity. So the Baby Boomers are rejecting Florida retirement in favor of big cities, while middle-aged adults are leaving big cities in droves.

People who have control over their lives can move where life is best for their family rather than for their work. Families with location-independent income can ditch stressful hubs like Silicon Valley and join the creative class as they move to smaller cities.

Coveted living spaces come from firms like SHOP that meld architecture with urban design and modular construction (as exemplified by their Lego project) to create new epicenters of community living that only a smaller city can provide.

5. Early retirement
The New York Times reports that Millennials are retiring in their 30s. Apparently, the holy grail of early retirement is having a side job that generates some money. Which makes me think early retirement is the same as being a stay-at-home spouse or an unemployed banker – overworked or in denial or both.

But the other thing the article talks about is how many of those early retirees are bloggers. The idea that blogging is a retirement gig is hilarious to me. I have never worked so many hours as I did when I was getting my blog off the ground. I did not sleep the year I grew my blog from 100 to 12,000 subscribers. The need to create content is relentless.

So I guess I’m in early retirement, Millennial style. And I can tell you with certainty that those of you working at a reliable, predictable job that does not stress you out have a much better gig than retirement.

21 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    The early-retirement crowd all seem to equate not working for the man with living. Maybe that’s true for some, but for others of us (me!) we are happy with what we do and can’t imagine not doing it. While I’m all for frugality and wish I could be even more frugal than I am, my goal is not to retire early (ship has sailed anyway) but to just not have crap I don’t need.

  2. Dana Martin
    Dana Martin says:

    Thank you for this reminder!
    “And I can tell you with certainty that those of you working at a reliable, predictable job that does not stress you out have a much better gig than retirement”

  3. katrin schumann
    katrin schumann says:

    I love your posts… but your comment about the “low hurdle” to getting books published is LOL wrong. I’ve published numerous nonfiction books, one bestselling novel (with another one on the way) and consulted on hundreds of book projects, and the only low hurdle I ever saw was 1) if the author had a killer platform (and in that case, the books often tanked anyway) 2) if the author’s voice or POV was absolutely unique and arresting (not easy to achieve).

  4. Cary Thomson
    Cary Thomson says:

    I did a temp job as an assistant to the board. A new member was quizzed by another on how old he was when he retired. It’s for sure a status symbol.

  5. JoanneBB
    JoanneBB says:

    I have a friend who aspires to be a social media influencer so she can “retire”. Like you pointed out, maintaining that audience so you keep getting paid is work!! Not retirement!! My parents are retired, my dad for nearly 20 years. His first few years he worked as a ski instructor, but stopped when it wasn’t fun anymore. That’s the retirement I aspire to, not full time side gigs. But I am an out of touch gen x. (I am at the younger end of gen x, my friend referenced above is at the older end of millennials)

    • Nick J
      Nick J says:

      I wish we’d stop using “early retirement” as the descriptor for financial independence (FI). Because the point of early retirement isn’t to stop working, it’s to save enough money so your savings can pay your living expenses for the rest of your life.

      Reaching FI at a young age seems to be an excellent goal. You learn the value of frugality. You learn simple investing strategies. You learn to be disciplined. Sure, some people inherit their way into FI. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible goal to achieve. Financial independence seems to be a status symbol everyone should attempt to achieve as early in their lives as possible.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I really hate this definition of financial independence. Because it presupposes that you know how much children will cost. So every time your kid asks you to pay for an opportunity you have already decided to say no. You have decided that you feeling like you are “financially independent” is more important than evaluating your kids’ requests on a case-by-case basis.

        The truth is that under your definition, everyone would be financially independent if they didn’t have a primal urge to give their kids what their kids ask for.


  6. Sara
    Sara says:

    The conclusion in the link for “failed GenX experiment” completely contradicts your characterization of it as a failed GenX experiment. But you’re just in it for the clicks, so…

  7. harris497
    harris497 says:

    You forgot volunteering for a charity. Giving time or money to a worthy cause seems to be something the middle aged do these days in greater numbers.
    Old Xer habits die hard:)

  8. Mandy Fard
    Mandy Fard says:

    This is so true… I never worked harder than I did, when I thought I am going to operate my business from home and take it easy! LOL! If I only knew then what I was getting myself into, I wouldn’t have started! Not that I regret it, but my point is I worked harder than I ever thought possible. You are so right about those who are working at a reliable, predictable job that does not stress them out have a much better gig than retirement! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject; so easy to relate to :-)

  9. ViideoGameVet
    ViideoGameVet says:

    I can concur that “earning ability” for a man is crucial for keeping a marriage alive.

    Soon after the dot-com crash my almost 20 year marriage when the wife informed me that “can’t you see what not earning your potential has done to me and the children.”

  10. Jane Carnell
    Jane Carnell says:

    Dear Penelope: Thanks to you, now I know as a lifelong freelance writer, my 23 years of writing a weekly celebrity interview column for a magazine was really just a side hustle and thus, early retirement. Wow. Awesome. I wonder what I’ll do for an encore. Retirement kind of sucks. Jane Carnell, Avenue of the Arts, Philly.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s two sections of this post that I very much enjoyed and learned a thing or two.

    2. Friends who tell you the truth – convenience friends and trophy friends. I especially found Abigail Disney’s story to be interesting and riveting to be honest. The things she learned about money as she worked with it over the years. Everybody’s story is different and it’s important to listen to each one of them.
    4. A home in a smallish city – “Coveted living spaces come from firms like SHOP that meld architecture with urban design and modular construction (as exemplified by their Lego project) to create new epicenters of community living that only a smaller city can provide.” I liked both links. I especially liked the Fast Company link about the SHoP Architects. They take a very holistic approach to the process from beginning to completion. Very team oriented across multiple disciplines. I didn’t find a link to the referenced Lego project in the quoted sentence above. I did a search and found this Wired article –

  12. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hi Penelope, love the honesty in this article. Lots of good points about what different lifestyles the current generations are coming to expect.
    I was curious to see if you could provide some more background about getting a book published. This is something I am trying to do on top of a full time job and family. Maybe I miss report cards more than I let on…?
    In your experience, once you come down to it, is publishing, in fact, a low hurdle?

  13. Roshni
    Roshni says:

    I cherish your posts… however, your remark about the “low obstacle” to getting books distributed is LOL wrong. I’ve distributed various true to life books, one top-rated novel (with another in transit) and counseled on many book ventures, and the main low obstacle I saw was 1) if the writer had an exceptional stage (and all things considered, the books frequently failed at any rate) 2) if the writer’s voice or POV was completely one of a kind and difficult to accomplish.

  14. Erin A.
    Erin A. says:

    You are spot on about early retirement. Many people use that as a status symbol to indicate that they chose to work but don’t have to. For me it hearken’s back to your favorite 4-Hour Workweek author and its just bullshit and categorization of tasks as not “work” or “career”.

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