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If any young person were on the brink of a fabulous career, it would seem to be my daughter, Signe. A recent honors graduate from New York University, she's smart, personable, hardworking, primed, and ready to begin her professional life (did I mention that she's very good-looking?). During her years in college, she managed to get a slew of internships (modern code word for "high-level indentured servitude") with prestigious corporations. Not only is her résumé a lot more impressive than mine was at her age: it's more impressive than mine is now.
But so far, the response to her glorious résumé and glowing recommendations has been. . . almost nothing. Since the economy went over the cliff, she, like many thousands of her bright-eyed cohorts, has been languishing in a limbo of forced unemployment. This state of affairs has not only been dispiriting for young job seekers unable to spot opportunities on the horizon, but disorienting for their parents, feeling their children's pain and uncertainty about what's supposed to happen next. It's as if the gears at one stage of the family life cycle have gotten stuck.
The situation of young people like Signe and families like mine reflects one aspect of a vast change in American families—what they look like, how they behave—which this issue of the Networker seeks to explore. Thirty years ago, the paradigm of family life was simple and largely unquestioned: an intact nuclear family in which parents were boss, or at least they were supposed to be. When kids turned 18 or 21, depending on whether they went to college, they flew the coop for good, got jobs, got married, got babies, got mortgages, and started the whole predictable cycle all over again.
Now, that old vision seems naively antiquated. Ron Taffel, in "Vertically Challenged," describes the new 21st-century, wildly democratic, hierarchy-be-damned family, in which parents try to make sense of kids who are hard to control, sexually precocious, and deeply marinated in pop culture. As a style of family life, it often looks a lot more like Animal House than Father Knows Best.