While some people may feel hot and bothered about Kim Kardashian's quickie marriage and divorce, perhaps we should focus on the positive side of it all. Imagine had this couple lasted long enough to have a child or two and then faced the stresses of real, not reel, life -- the sleepless nights, the diapers, the in-laws. The collateral damage would have been worse and watching it on T.V. even more revolting, right?
The real reality faced by young couples today seems more worthy of our attention. According to the New York Times, Gen X parents are feeling challenged like no others in recent memory. In "The Toll of Stress on Parents -- and Kids," family policy expert, Dr. Paul Kershaw, reports that young couples are being "squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income because of the high cost of housing and squeezed for services like child care that would help them balance earning a living with raising a family." He predicts that this group, who he calls "Generation Squeeze," will be making less money and absorbing more stress than their parents did, and the effects will show up future generations to come.
For Boomers with children in this group born between 1965 and 1980, Dr. Kershaw's observations are more than just a little unsettling. Not only does he highlight the widening economic gap between generations, as well as the challenging social environment these kids face as they create families of their own, but he reminds us that as potential grandparents, we are more than just a little ambivalent -- or unable -- to do much about it.
Although we may have struggled to fill our empty nests and longed for the days when grand-kids arrived, by the time these little ones come our reality feels quite different. Many of us between the ages of 45-65 are facing our own financial stress, still working, saving for retirement and pinching pennies just to get by. Those more economically fortunate, have other ideas about how to spend their time -- and their money. Boomers want to maximize the years that lie ahead by enjoying the fruits of their labor. They are keeping themselves in shape, not simply to run after tiny tots, but to cross off their bucket lists while they still can.
And some Boomers are busy reinventing themselves. According to AARP, there are more men and women starting new careers in their 50s and 60s, transforming hobbies into meaningful, and sometimes even profitable, professions. Boomers often feel they have put off fulfilling their true interests while raising the very children who are seeking their support now. They're squeezing in a little more "me" time now and that means putting themselves ahead of others for the first time in their adult lives.
And, if they're not busy reinventing themselves, many are off seeking new relationships. With the high rate of divorce and increasing number of those who have been single from the start, there are more middle-aged men and women interested in meeting mates than ever before. Online dating services for people over 50 are rising faster than for any other age group. And so is participation in activities that attract other mid-life singles -- e.g. wine tastings, tennis clinics and senior travel adventures. These interests take time and energy, the kind of reserves once saved for reading "Goodnight Moon" to grandchildren.
So, where does that leave Gen X moms and dads who follow real life paths -- so clearly less dramatic than those played out by latest Kardashian couple? Typically -- which of course means there are many exceptions -- most meet their mates in their 20s, get married by mid 30s and find entry level jobs to support their lives. Though economically strapped, many go on to start families -- as biological clocks are not connected to bank statements -- and if a couple stays together long enough, there is often a home with a couple of children running around by the time they reach their 40s. As their paths unfold, at some point many of these Gen X'ers find themselves counting on their parents' help -- if not financially, then with child care. "Mom," they ask, "when I go back to work, can you help me with the kids, please?" Dads -- and moms as well -- are reluctantly told, "We're short on funds, so some extra cash toward the new house would be great."
And why shouldn't they ask for help? Their expectations are reasonable given the way things worked for previous generations of families. Their great-grandparents -- especially their mom's moms -- are remembered as eagerly waiting to feel needed by their kids and grand-kids. Back then, when a smaller number of mothers worked (which may seem like ages ago, but has only shifted since the feminist revolution), few alternatives existed as these women reached their 50s and 60s. The men often retired by 65. Add to that, the average life expectancy a few generations ago was only about age 50, so if parents made it until then, their grand-kids provided the kind of much needed vitality as the end of life approached. Oh, how our world has changed!
The landscape of American culture -- including family structure, parenting, the role of women, the gender gap and the whole experience of aging -- has shifted so radically over the past 50 years, that biological, economic and social expectations have gone topsy-turvy. And this perfect storm has erupted just as Gen X'ers are entering their adult lives as young parents.
Which leads me back to "Generation Squeeze" and their stress. Is it truly unique to them? And what long term effects will their stress really have? While Dr. Kershaw pointed toward the impact these new challenges will have on Gen X's children, Dr. John Jacobs, a couples therapist, wonders how additional stress will affect their marriages. He says, "The lack of family support -- which includes unavailable grandparents -- adds to these others economic and social challenges and will most immediately translate into creating conflicts among couples." "Unfortunately," he says "this will only further weaken the already vulnerable bonds of contemporary marriage."
We know that the divorce rate has stabilized or even slightly declined during these tough economic times, but the success of marriages among "Generation Squeeze" is yet to be determined. Hopefully these couples will have a longer run than Ms. Kardashian's, but if they succeed, it will be in spite of their challenging environment and without those coveted squeezes from today's grandparents.
Are Gen X parents facing more challenges today than ever before? Are absent grandparents adding to their stress?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com and www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.
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