Just a generation ago, the child-rearing contract was clearly designed to last for about 18 years. Most families then, like my own, seemed pleased with a planned adolescent departure date. Kids didn't want to live at home, and after all the protesting and rebelling we'd put our parents through, they were usually relieved to see us go. By the time we'd finished high school, it was more than reasonable for our parents to assume that we'd move out and one way or another (through a job, going to college, getting married) start to stand on our own two unsubsidized feet. Most of us lived up to these expectations, not giving them a second thought---until we had kids of our own.
Family therapists were enthusiastic champions of this cultural narrative. Back in 1980, when Jay Haley's generative book Leaving Home
was published, family treatment with late adolescents in the home focused on removing impediments to their departure. Parents learned to take charge and get their kids packing. Indeed, throughout much of American history, the ideal of successful maturity has touted the virtues of autonomy and individuation. The psychological necessity for such separation permeated popular sentiment, where even now it remains relatively unchallenged.
But in much of the world, over a vast range of cultures, this severing of ties has never been a goal. From most of Africa and Latin America to Italy, the Pacific Islands, East Asia, the Mideast, and Greece, extended families provide the basic family unit. And why not?The Beginning of a Paradigm Shift
Unlike our own parents, we've been doing away with all that hierarchy stuff and blurring the generational lines as rapidly as we can. Note how deftly we've passed along the three big markers of our youth: extramarital sex, recreational (and prescription) drugs, and the primal pleasure of good rock and roll. There's plenty of evidence for diminishing generational differences in many other spheres, too. Far more than our parents did with us, we function as a single sociocultural body, and are less apt to highlight the distinct and conflicting generational divides. We share with our kids our ideas about politics ("Yes We Did!"), casual language ("Don't dis this idea"), designer coffee, moral relativism, love of denim, and, perhaps most important, a mutual desire for this greater intimacy.
Growing numbers of the emerging adults (and parents) I treat are trying to stay deeply connected, rather than separate from each other. These days, I'm working to support them, rather than to challenge their dependence, as I might once have done. For example, Kelly, a 23-year-old recovering addict, recently told me that her parents would get anxious if they hadn't heard from her for 48 hours. Her parents help her pay for renting a room in town so she can be somewhat on her own, but she stays overnight with them quite frequently, whenever she wants to. I asked her to tell me how she made sense of their worrying, half expecting her to say she was feeling crowded and mistrusted by them, or angry that they didn't see how far she'd come. Instead, she explained that she was really glad they were fretting because after a couple of days without contact, she did begin to feel less stable, and they were right to point it out.Hard Realities
There's no question that the transition from adolescence to full-fledged adulthood lasts longer than it used to. Emerging adults are taking five to ten years longer than a generation ago to meet the common measures of adulthood: getting and keeping a job, finding a life partner, having a family, attaining some financial independence, taking on responsibilities, owning property, even just feeling grown up. There's some substance to the idea that age 30 now looks a lot like our age 20 did. It's common in the industrialized world, not just in the United States, and it opens up a window for both amazing self-discovery and a crushing sense of personal defeat.Secure Love
In addition to responding to the challenges of a changing economy, the new bungee family has evolved as a consequence of dramatic shifts in the intimacy expectations and opportunities for emerging adults, who enter into first marriages significantly later now: about ages 26 for women and 28 for men. They're older, but still not so old. Economic uncertainty probably plays a role in relationship instability and reinforces a shorter-term approach to looking for love. Even quite committed young couples speak of waiting until they're more established---settled at work, finished with their schooling, more hopeful about their economic futures---before tying the knot. It's got to be hard to imagine being responsible for someone else, much less supporting a family, when you're living paycheck to paycheck.
The new bungee family offers emerging adults---and our fragmented social fabric---a healing alternative, one that's injecting the best social capital available into the human mix. It may represent today's best promise of real multigenerational relationships: attachment, connection, support, and a warm blanket on a cold night. Our loss of economic capital is troubling, but it's being made intolerable by the attendant drop in social capital. Rich or poor, our emerging adults may be unable to take hold without having people they can rely on; though there are many kinds of social capital, a loving family is surely the most essential of them all.
Someday, not far off, the tables may turn, and we boomers ourselves will be asking for help. As recent economic events have unfolded, we shouldn't be confident that our employers and our government will provide for us. I'm not suggesting this as a mercenary motive for parental kindness, but as a reason to consider that bungee families may have lasting relevance. If we're lucky, in the next bungee wave, we're going to be someone's old adults. Down the road, the bungee family, with its guarantee of secure love, may seem even more wonderful.This blog is excerpted from “Bungee Families." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!