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“In 2010, the first Baby Boomers turned 65. By 2030, 20 percent of America’s population will be over 65. As the Baby Boom generation moves into later life, the proportion of American elders who are divorced is skyrocketing,” says researcher and author Elizabeth Marquardt. “The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2015, 46 percent of boomers will live in divorced or unmarried households. These trends raise concerns for Baby Boomers as they age – and challenges for their grown children – as they become caregivers for their aging parents.”

Marquardt and Amy Ziettlow are co-researchers in a 3-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment to investigate aging, death and dying in an era of high family fragmentation.

Marquardt and Ziettlow are asking Gen Xers about things like:

  • How does your generation care for parents who may live far apart?
  • Is there an obligation to care for stepparents?
  • How do you grieve the loss of a parent when you have grieved the loss at the time of the divorce?
  • How do you honor your father and mother when a parent abandons their child?

During an interview, one man said, “My parent’s cold war lasted until my dad died. Then my mom wanted me to mourn the loss of my dad with her. I had already mourned the loss of my father.”

“Married parents will do their best to protect their kids from the worst of a dying parents’ illness,” Marquardt says. “Fragmented families don’t have that luxury. In fact, many of the people interviewed talked about stepparents who don’t communicate anymore once the biological parent has passed away. Family change is not the only stressor. Longer life span, smaller family size and rapid economic changes have a ripple effect on family breakdown.

“We have never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an aging nation,” Marquardt says. “Marriage used to be ‘until death do us part.’ Now it is ‘until it doesn’t feel good anymore.’ There are people who will die a lonely death due to family fragmentation. Leaders are asking who will be taking care of the old people.”

Marquardt and Ziettlow have found there is a lot of hope with Generation X.

“There is something about telling your story,” Marquardt says. “Out of sharing tears, raw memories and family craziness there is a hope that seems to emerge. They take a deep breath and at the end seem to feel a sense of relief.”

Many of those interviewed said they agreed to do it because they wanted to honor their parent.

“The golden rule doesn’t say, ‘Do unto others as they have done to you,’” Marquardt says. “Of the Gen Xers we have interviewed, many say their only hope is to rise above what has happened to them and to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Who will be there to take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself?

Image from Unsplash.com

What to Teach Kids About Marriage

We can prepare people to do marriage well.

In a Wall Street Journal article called The Divorce Generation, Susan Gregory Thomas tells the story of her marriage. She met a guy, and they fell in love. Then, they moved in together. His parents warned them that being roommates and pals was totally different than being husband and wife, but they paid no attention. Instead, she and her boyfriend opposed their parents’ advice. They thought it was old-fashioned and sexist.

“Like many of my cohort, the circumstances of my upbringing led me to believe that I had made exactly the right choices by doing everything differently from my parents,” says Thomas.

Thomas thought her marriage would last forever. But nine years later, she found herself in the midst of an unwanted divorce.

A Generation of Divorce

“Gen X children witnessed the beginning of a divorce epidemic. This led to a divorce culture, which led to the conclusion that marriage can be a source of pain and loss,” says Dr. John Van Epp, clinical counselor and author. “These failed relationships convinced people to believe that relationships are good, but relationship definition is risky.”

According to a 2004 study by Generational Differences, Gen Xers were one of the least-parented and least-nurtured generations in U.S. history. Census data shows that almost half of them come from broken homes and that 40 percent were latchkey kids.

In the Journal of Sociology, Kate Hughes states, “Adult children of divorced parents’ failed marriages and broken families brought a fragility that led to risk-diminishing strategies.”

“Many parents sent messages to their children like, ‘Don’t marry young. Establish yourself first. Be sure. Be REALLY sure. The goal is to minimize your risks,’” Van Epp says. “Consequently, Gen Xers took the messages of apprehension a step further to avoidance. Can we form relationships without defining what they really are?”

Family Structure Matters

Van Epp believes it’s a myth that a lack of structure in a relationship is safe. Compared to children living with their own married parents, children 12-17 living with cohabitors are:

  • Six times more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems,
  • 122 percent more likely to be expelled from school, and
  • 90 percent more likely to have a lower GPA.

Additionally, the rates of serious abuse are:

  • Lowest in intact families,
  • Six times higher in stepfamilies,
  • 14 times higher in always single-mother families,
  • 20 times higher in a biological cohabiting family, and
  • 33 times higher when the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the biological father.

“Structure gives a framework to the relationship and defines the roles,” Van Epp says.

“People don’t understand that relationship dynamics without relationship structure increases their risk for experiencing exactly what they want to avoid in relationships. Whether married, single or divorced, you can teach your children about dating, partner selection and how to build healthy relationships that don’t create risks.”

The answer is not to avoid marriage but to teach kids about how to do it well. This begins when parents build their child’s confidence (not apprehension and avoidance) about how to successfully navigate romantic relationships and establish a secure and lasting marriage.