March 2, 2021: By Joshua Coleman, Psychologist and Author, "Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict"
Millennials (and Gen Z) entered a world teeming with economic uncertainty, a disintegrating social safety net, changed expectations for men and women, and rising rates of stress and mental illness. In response, they’ve sought to change the structures they’ve encountered — many of which were put into place by baby boomers — to counter the difficulties they faced.
But whether in the workplace or existing family structures, older generations could learn a lot from what millennials have tried to do to create an environment more suited to their liking.
Take the workplace, where the millennial influence has often been derided. A recent Gallup Survey, “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” observed, “In their relatively short tenure as employees, millennials have led the charge to break down traditional organizational structures and policies and have pushed companies to rethink their work environments.”
The necessity for those changes is self-evident to their generation. “Millennials are worse off economically than their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents,” journalist Anne Helen Petersen notes in “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
The harsh economic realities of the past four decades have had a profound effect on the well-being of both millennials and their parents, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of “The Way We Never Were,” explained in an email. “The disintegration of the social safety net" created by unions, pensions, health care and affordable tuition has been accompanied by what she describes as “a collapse of the psychological safety net.”
Rising rates of stress and mental illness for millennials and Gen Z bear out her claim. Along with their dissatisfaction with the lack of workplace security and the unresponsiveness of political and economic elites, Malcolm Harris in “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials” notes that “American kids and young adults endure an unprecedented level of day-to-day agitation … Their lives center around production, competition, surveillance and achievement in ways that were totally exceptional only a few decades ago.”
The economic and social precarity faced by millennials — especially as they have got older and either started or contemplated having their own families — have intensified another demand for change that has been in the works for several decades. As with their demands for workplace transformation, millennials envision relationships with their parents that adhere to their principles of personal growth and the creation of happiness. They seek interactions that are egalitarian rather than authoritarian, based on shared respect rather than obligation or duty.
In the same way that millennials are more willing than prior generations to walk away from jobs that don’t meet their emotional needs, they appear more willing to walk away from parents who do not engage with them in a way that prioritizes their desire to find meaning in their lives and experience personal growth.
For some, cutting off contact with a parent is an act of protecting their mental health, rather than a breaking of tradition or duty.
This prioritization of mental health has meant that millennials are more likely to be in therapy than prior generations and — as I summarize in my book “Rules of Estrangement” — may want to use individual or family therapy to address how they felt hurt, abused or traumatized by the parent.
For a variety of reasons, not all millennials are able to view their parents’ earlier failures or perceived shortcomings in a sympathetic way. And not all parents are up to the task of playing along with these newer rules of engagement. One factor contributing to this generational conflict is counsel from therapists who sometimes wrongly blame parents for the anxiety, depression and low-esteem of their millennial or Gen Z clients. While family history can certainly be a cause of these outcomes, our lives are also powerfully determined by the era in which we were born and raised, as evidenced by recent research from psychology professor, Jean Twenge.
In short, blaming parents for children’s insecurities, setbacks and disappointments often ignores the social and economic climate in which children were raised. It invites anger and contempt toward parents, rather than understanding or support for the ways in which parents’ choices were also constrained by the social and economic climate millennials now seek to change. It blames parents rather than social structures for the insecurity and agitation young people are feeling today.
On the other hand, boomer parents can also continue to engage with their adult children in ways that causes them to feel hurt, angry or misunderstood. They can fail to see that the same attitudes and dispositions that made the parent successful or secure no longer apply to today’s economy where everyone is working harder and harder for less and less — where a college degree is more likely to make you a member of the debtor class than the middle class.
Parents may mistake their millennial children’s demands for greater sensitivity and affirmation as an expression of entitlement, rather than see those demands as their children’s attempt to carve out at least one area in which they might be supported in their desire for a healthier form of interaction and growth. They may see their children’s struggles as self-centered, rather than as an understandable reaction to a changed, more uncertain world. Boomer parents may also be unaware of the ways in which their own anxious style of parenting has contributed to their children’s feelings of anxiety.
Whatever its limitations, I believe the millennials’ rules of engagement with the world can be a good model for modern parent-adult child relationships. University of Utah sociologist Dan Carlson found that millennial couples are more likely than earlier generations to share parenting and housework. He also found that “millennial egalitarian couples are better communicators and this communication leads to greater relationship quality.” I have found that an egalitarian, communication-intensive framework is also good for parents and adult children, however difficult the transition to them may be for one or both parties.
In my decades of work as a family therapist, I have observed that the most hopeful moments of reconciliation occur when: parents accept their child’s requests for better boundaries; recognize and address past hurts; show respect for their child’s preferences regarding time spent together; and work to promote happiness in the relationship.
In these cases, the parent and adult child grow closer and thrive. They become the parents their children want to confide in, to trust and to love. And that’s what most parents want, too. It works better for everyone — even though it wasn’t the parent’s idea.