By the time he hit his early 30s, Dan Zanes was finished. After seven years of hard living and tactical screw-ups, his band, a rootsy and critically acclaimed Boston beer-hall outfit called the Del Fuegos, had petered out. “We lasted through the eighties, and then the world changed, and we were tired and feeling old,” he says now. “It wasn’t any fun anymore.”
Fun or not, Zanes was still clinging to a thread of rock-and-roll ambition. So he put out a solo album—the aptly titled Cool Down Time—and the world reacted with a thunderous yawn. “I was writing songs about drinking and old girlfriends—just the usual mundane subject matter that I’d been mining for quite a while. I was kind of running out of things to say,” Zanes remembers. “Nobody cared about my solo record. Thank God the thing bombed!” What people did care about, and passionately, was a handmade cassette of kid-friendly tunes that Zanes had recorded at home as a way to introduce his daughter, Anna, to some campfire classics from the great American hootenanny. Zanes made 300 copies of the tape and passed them out to kids in Brooklyn, and before long requests for more began to pour in.
Now, after a decade of specializing in cool music for kids, Zanes is the Woody Guthrie of Gen X parenting and a welcome antidote to the Wiggles; he’s got sold-out concert tours, spots on the Disney Channel and Sesame Street, and fast-selling albums that boast guest appearances by the likes of Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Aimee Mann. To his own amazement, he finds himself . . . running a business. “I realized the universe had much, much bigger plans for me than the kind of things that I was coming up with,” he says. “As soon as I opened myself up to them, then things really got interesting.”
The story of Dan Zanes is emblematic of something that’s starting to look more and more like a generational hallmark: the thirtysomething career swerve. The knee-jerk response, of course, is to call anything like that a “midlife crisis,” a loaded and snickery phrase that brings to mind images of spare-tired suburbanites who suddenly get Korn tattoos and Harleys and 22-year-old girlfriends. In its latest incarnation, however, the midlife crisis seems less like a pathetic grab at fading youth and more like a sensible response to the evolve-or-die brutality of the American economy. Old industries are shriveling and brand-new ones are cropping up every week; as Louis Uchitelle writes in his new book, The Disposable American, layoffs have become as grimly inevitable as melting icecaps. If a radical job change used to be pooh-poohed as a sign that poor old Mr. Vacillation just couldn’t hack it in the real world, the opposite approach—sticking tenaciously to one preordained career path—now looks not only unrealistic but suicidal. And here’s the thing: As the Zanes Arc shows us, you should have a midlife crisis. You should be open to reevaluating—maybe even neurotically second-guessing—the choices you’ve made and where the hell they’ve taken you, just as you should be open to dashing off in a brand-new direction at 35. “Follow your bliss” is the capsule of middlebrow wisdom that the self-help books have urged us to swallow, but it might make an equal amount of sense, in this day and age, to follow your doubts. Just think about those original choices. Maybe you made them when you were 22, or even 18, at an age when you were not only susceptible to fleeting and arbitrary impulses but quite possibly incapable of paying attention to anyone whose lips uttered a word like “retirement” or “mortgage.” It might be tempting, 15 years later, to brush off these doubts and brandish that blinding Tony Robbins smile and tell yourself that you’re a couple of decades too young for a midlife crisis, but that’s only true if you intend to retire at the tender age of 110. No, you’re halfway there now. Face it. This is the middle, and if you want to exert any sort of control over your own destiny, now is the time to try.