Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Next Generation: Teens and Twenty-Somethings

Young people born between 1980 and 2000 are being called "The Millennials" and "Generation Y." They are the children of baby boomers, and are in their teens and twenties now. They're different from previous generations in a number of important ways. The week of May 20, Time ran a cover story by Joel Stein, called "The Me, Me, Me Generation: Millennials are Lazy, Entitled Narcissists Who Still Live With Their Parents, And Why They'll Save Us All." There are some essential qualities and values worth understanding about this next generation.

Baby boomers were born from about 1943 through 1960. Boomers grew up in the suburbs, affected by hippies and the summer of love in the 60s, became yuppies, lost money in the stock market and during the Great Recession. Boomers are working longer and postponing retirement due to their financial setbacks.

In contrast, Generation X, born from 1961 through 1980, grew up as latchkey kids, often with divorced parents. This group grew up with a sense of boredom, and studies show them often earning less in real dollars than their parents, which didn't use to happen, historically speaking.

So what's unique about millennials?

1. Their parents tried to pump up their self-esteem while they were growing up. Many of them are very disappointed in their careers. They have a high likelihood of unmet career expectations and low levels of career satisfaction. They were used to getting trophies, and having parents who praised them. They expect to succeed, and quickly.

2. High levels of entitlement. Many millennials have to learn that they can't start at the top, email the CEO, or skip work projects they find boring.

3. They're networked. They interact all day long, mostly through screens. Cell phones help them socialize 24/7. They use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. Most teens send 88 texts each day. The influence of friends is omnipresent. In his book, Idisorder, psychology professor Larry Rosen notes this generation can get a dopamine hit from people liking their status updates,and can get anxious if they can't check their phones. These changes in communication technology have changed dating, friendships, work, family relationships, free time, and even job searches.

4. Studies show this generation is less empathetic, probably due to less face-to-face time, more social media and self-promotion. They love their cell phones, but are often uncomfortable in conversations. They have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out On Things), because other people appear so busy and happy on social media.

4. They take longer to grow up. Obamacare recently provided insurance coverage  in the US for dependent children up to age 26. Many young adults are living with their parents longer, and spending longer trying to find a career that is fulfilling and meaningful, not one that just pays the bills. They marry later. They have children later. They do most things later in life than previous generations.

5. Narcissism is at higher levels in this age group. Millennials grew up on reality television, which is a sort of training ground for narcissism. Studies show higher levels of narcissism among this age group than in previous generations. They like positive feedback and approval from others.

6. They have different expectations of work than previous generations. Money isn't enough. They want self-actualization. I found it interesting that in his Time article, Stein notes that at DreamWorks, 25% of the employees are under age 30. The studio has a very high retention rate (96%) and offers classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography, and karate that employees can take during work hours. All of these benefits are highly attractive to millennials, who care deeply about work/life balance, and negotiating work schedules and time off.

7. They rebel less than previous generations. They are accepting of differences between people. Millennials are tolerant. They have their own microgroups, with unique music, media, and cultural interests. They are not as homogenous as previous generations of young people who may have shared one genre of popular music, the same television culture, etc.

8. They are less religious. They believe in God, but at least 30% of people under age 30 don't go to church and are religiously unaffiliated. This is less than any previous generation.

9. They are careful with money, having less debt than their parents. They have taken on student loans, but take on less credit card debt and household debt. (Maybe living longer at home is helping them get further ahead before launching?)

10. This next generation is realistic, pragmatic, and optimistic. You could call it pragmatic idealism.

These are, of course, broad generalizations about generational trends. There are individual differences that may account for some teens and twenty-somethings not fitting in these broader brush strokes. Whether we choose to see the positive or negative contributions this next generation will make to our society is up to each of us. Just like the similarities we see in our parents and grandparents who weathered the Great Depression, the next generation is having a different life experience, partially defined by the times they are coming of age in. The Time cover story from May 20 is well worth reading and discussing.

For those of us who have children or grandchildren in their teenage years and 20s, this article about the unique challenges our next generation faces reminds us to reach out to do what we can to guide and encourage their development. I believe in the wonderful young people I know in this age group. I feel hopeful about their future, and their ability to improve the world. As adults who care about them, we can take up our role to encourage them to work hard, be industrious and self-motivated, volunteer as early and often as possible to develop empathy, practice engaging in face-to-face communication starting in our families, and develop their character and faith. Their generation has its unique benefits as well as hardships, and it is our role to help encourage, develop and influence them for good, rather than stand by and lament.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Stories We Tell

I saw an intriguing film this past week made by young Canadian actor/writer/director Sarah Polley, called "Stories We Tell." The 2012 film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and has won several film festival awards. The film was just released in the US this week. The film is a perfect launching point for discussion about the power of our personal narrative and how it may differ from the narratives of others in our own family.

The film documents Polley's search to learn more about her mother, who was a Canadian actress and casting director. Her mother died of cancer when she was 11.Within her family, it had been a  standing joke that she doesn't look like the rest of her four older siblings. She's the only redhead in the bunch. Her siblings, her father, her parents' close friends and family are all interviewed by Polley in the excavation of family secrets and the search for understanding and truth.

After her mother's death, Polley was raised by her father, Michael Polley, a former actor who turned to selling insurance after marrying her mother. In the film, Michael reads selected parts of his own memoirs with his reflections on his relationships with the children, and a balanced view of the pitfalls and gaps in his own marriage. Michael and Sarah, his youngest daughter, grew close as he finished raising her alone after his wife's death.

In the film, there is Sarah's investigation of a rumor that she is the product of an extramarital affair between her mother and someone other than her father.

I won't spoil the surprises of what Sarah finds out, but you owe it to yourself to see it. The film is artfully crafted, drawing us in as layers of facts and perceptions are shared in successive interviews Sarah conducts on film. There is much to ponder about her mother's true character, and about different aspects that were known to different people. Among the talented cast, there are 8mm film footage of look-alikes who artfully appear and bring the narration to life.

There are questions about who the story belongs to, and the different take different friends and family have on the story. There are wonderful insights about what leads to infidelity, questions about whether people in a relationship ever love completely equally, and about what is the core of being a parent. There is an examination of what really is family. In addition, there is a sense of how impossible it is for one to be fully known, and how many different people may have their own, unique understanding of the same individual.

"Stories We Tell" is a powerful little film, and while simply made, gets to the heart of the complexity of being fully human. The film reminds us that while we have our own narrative, so do the people we care about.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Saying Goodbye

My family lost our matriarch and most senior member this week, as my grandmother passed just a few weeks short of her 100th birthday. I was glad that she could complete the end of her story, thanks to the wonderful hospice nurses who helped make it possible. She died peacefully in her own little apartment at the senior assisted living home which has been her home for a number of years.

Spending time with my grandmother this last month made me reflect on lessons I  first learned in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was doing hospice social work early in my career. This week's events just made those lessons about losing a loved one much more personal. Here are a few lessons about helping yourself and other loved ones let go and say goodbye when the time comes:

Loss is a part of life. It's a part of the family life cycle.

Exits and entrances into the family and out of the family are pivotal moments for everyone in the family. This includes deaths, but also divorces, births, adoptions, and marriages . They are nodal life events that cause adjustments.

People are generally happier dying at home if at all possible. It's more intimate.

Our sense of hearing becomes more keen in the days before we depart, so even if a family member is unresponsive you can talk to them, reassure them, let them know that its okay to leave this body and make their transition. Some of our family at a geographic distance got to reassure Grandma by phone even when she was in her last several days.

Death can sometimes provide an opportunity to mend fences between family members. Sometimes you've had a conflicted relationship with the dying person and it may be unrealistic to think you are going to resolve all your feelings before they pass. Try to accept it.

Include younger family members in ways that seems appropriate, but not scary. It felt especially meaningful to have my young adult daughters come and say their own goodbyes. In some ways, including younger family members in suitable, age-appropriate ways helps them be a part of what the older family members are dealing with. It's also good loss education for younger family members who will have other losses to cope with and mourn in future years.

Ask questions of the hospice nurses or other medical staff. It helps to know about the dying process and what is happening as change accelerates in the final days and hours. It's calming to be reassured about what's normal.

Palliative care helps keep a patient comfortable and out of pain. Since supportive, hospice care lasts for only a few days, weeks, or months, we are not concerned about addiction in a dying patient. Hospice and end-of life care is all about comfort measures and helping the patient to make a peaceful transition.

People seem to choose their own timing. Try not to feel guilty if you aren't present at the time of the death. Hospice nurses often notice that family can be holding constant bedside vigil for hours, leave for a moment, and the patient will often die as family are not in the room.

Make peace. Say anything you need to say to your family member; don't regret not saying it later.

Our civilization and culture is not as advanced in terms of dealing with death and dying as some others. It's okay to use the words death, die, etc. Some patients will want to talk about it, but aren't sure the family is up for it.

Tears are good, and healing. Real men cry, too, if they feel like it. I respect a man that can cry.

Loss is often experienced based on your degree of attachment to the person you are losing.

Different family members can express their grief differently.

Loving touch can be the right way to connect with a dying loved one.

Each loss is unique. It's not useful to compare them. Losing an elderly grandparent who lived until almost 100 is not all the same loss as losing a child or a person in the prime of their life, or still with small children. All losses do put us in touch with the temporary nature of this life, the power of connection at all stages of life, and the way that families need each other in times of loss. The finality of loss makes me aware to tell the people I love how I feel about them frequently, and not to let my appreciation of other people go unspoken.

Goodbye, Namo. We'll miss you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Siblings: It's Complicated

This week, I heard a story on NPR about several recent studies on the impact that older siblings have on younger siblings that got me reflecting. Siblings can be our oldest friends. They hold our past, and we hold theirs. We may be a good fit, but we might not be. We didn't pick them out. We compete as children for time, attention, and parental resources. Brothers and sisters help form our identity, for better or worse.

The NPR story featured interviews with an OB/GYN who works with pregnant teens, who noticed a pattern that if they were helping a pregnant teen with medical needs during her pregnancy, they were very often seeing her younger sister(s) in the coming years with a teen pregnancy of their own. In a follow-up study, they showed that girls with an older sister who got pregnant as a teen are 5 times as likely to have a teen pregnancy themselves.

Another study quoted in the NPR story followed the substantial increase in smoking if another sibling smokes. It's enough to make you wonder how your siblings can impact your life, your choices, and your personality. Perhaps siblings can influence us for good (as in being responsible, getting good grades, etc.), or for bad (smoking ,drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, early sexual activity). In some families, I see children working hard at differentiating from older siblings to be different on purpose.

Birth order also comes into play. Are you a typical oldest child who is responsible, seeks to please parents, and tries to influence younger siblings? Are you a middle child who got lost in the shuffle and can get along with anybody? Are you a typical youngest who was babied a little?

As a family therapist, I sometimes feel having siblings gives us our first opportunity to learn how to have a voice, assert ourselves, and learn how to become socially skilled in working things out with other people.

Siblings can be extremely different, or amazingly similar. Sometimes all you have in common is your parents, and growing up together. Different siblings can also have markedly different childhoods growing up in the same family. Growing up you may each be competing for a niche in the family. Parents will play into this, as in "Mary is our athlete." As parents, we want to be sure to see each child in a complete way, and not stereotype their strengths or roles. You can have as many 'good children' in the family as you have children. Try not to play favorites.

With adult siblings, an attitude of tolerance is helpful, and trying to stay out of judgment. Lowering our expectations also helps. It's wonderful if they end up becoming your closest ally and supporter, but it often doesn't happen. Try to appreciate what you can about them, respect your shared past, and set boundaries if and when you need to if you have a sibling who is destructive towards you. It can be hard when you have to work together as a team with aging parents if you aren't close.

The sibling relationship impacts many of us profoundly. It helps to define your core self. It can be a source of support, understanding, and strength, or it may be the source of sadness, hurt, and the feeling that you wish you could be closer. You can do your part to be a supportive sibling, and then some of it is up to chance, parenting, the goodness of fit between your personalities, and your ability (and theirs) to accept the differences between you. Having a sibling you feel close and connected to is a great asset, but it's a team sport that takes both you and the other person.