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Enter the Post-Boomer Era
I had my first real insight about what might be going on in today's families a few years ago, as I returned home from a series of presentations to parents and therapists across the country. Sitting on the plane, I found myself struck by one characteristic of the audiences I'd been addressing, recognizing something I hadn't consciously grasped until then: My God, I suddenly thought, how young are these parents anyway?! The answer—20- to 40-something—had the effect of parting a curtain in my mind. I suddenly understood that our society had crossed a major generational divide and embarked upon the first "post-boomer" era of parenting.
While the usual definition of a "boomer" is a person born between 1946 and 1964, even those born after 1956 weren't true members of the boomer counterculture: they were too young to have experienced firsthand the defining events of the '60s: civil-rights marches, the riots, Vietnam, the pill, Woodstock Nation, the assassinations. Many boomers had broken profoundly with their parents, the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. These pre-boomer mothers and fathers, like my own, were quintessentially "old-style" parents, who believed in hierarchy, privacy, conformity, and sacrifice, while many of their children were caught up in the '60s social revolution. Boomers and their parents knew intimately what generational conflict was all about.
Most of the parents coming to our offices today are too young to have identified with the boomer rebellion. They're really post-boomers. Consider the generation of parents born, on average, in the mid-1950s, who had their first child at 25. Their children would have been born in 1980 or 1981. These were the kids who began showing up in our offices, agencies, and hospitals in the early '90s, some who are now having kids of their own.
Chances are that the families you're sitting with in your practice are post-boomer families—parents and children who've experienced variations of key social changes: the growth of suburbia and exurbia, widespread divorce and blended families, the ubiquity of mothers in the workforce, continual geographic relocation, overscheduled lives, technology, globalization. Shaped by this shared experience, parents and children in the post-boomer era are more alike than different. Despite the hair-raising chaos that we see in our offices, these generations have life narratives closer than any other generational dyad we've treated since World War II. Post-boomers and their kids are, to a remarkable degree, kindred spirits, mostly unaffected by the "generation gap" that was the buzzword of the '60s and '70s.
What characterizes the post-boomer family, then, is the gradual replacement of a vertical, intergenerational struggle over hierarchy, boundaries, and individuation (the starting point of most therapy approaches from the '60s through the '90s) by a horizontal, multidirectional tension between a culture that breeds fragmentation and an increasing desire for family engagement. This is a revolutionary way for parents and children to feel and interact, suggesting that it may well be time to radically reimagine our clinical work with families.
You're sitting in a consulting room trying to make something stick to what feels like slippery walls: the collective mind of kids and families in our slick, attention-deprived, post-boomer world. Although there's never much overt rejection of what you say, few interventions "take" for long. So you throw a whole lot more against the wall—a new therapeutic module, the latest evidence-based protocol, a few compelling facts from some promising psychoeducational approach—and, frustratingly, much of it disappears from everyone's awareness by the time they come in the next week.
But one day, something you try makes an impression, and a little change occurs: a child or teen thinks before lashing out, a parent effectively soothes an unhappy girl. Then nothing you do works for a while, until all of a sudden something else adheres to the one change that had stuck before. Then, another and another, until that once empty wall holds a hodgepodge of moments that may make a difference.
Like the swirling tangents of 21st-century dinnertime conversation, therapy with today's kids and families often borders on the chaotic. So how can we move beyond random success to identify some well-anchored and dependable clinical principles of working when old styles don't cut it with 21st-century families? Thanks to a powerful convergence of post-boomer findings on temperament, child development, and learning processes, along with a growing literature on successful parenting practices, we know far more than we used to about what kids and parents need so they can change in ways that dovetail with the realities of contemporary family life. To illustrate, let's focus on how two traditional bulwarks of family functioning—hierarchy and communication—can be redefined for 21st-century families.