If any young person were on the brink of a fabulous career, it would seem to be my daughter, Signe. A recent honors graduate from New York University, she’s smart, personable, hardworking, primed, and ready to begin her professional life (did I mention that she’s very good-looking?). During her years in college, she managed to get a slew of internships (modern code word for “high-level indentured servitude”) with prestigious corporations. Not only is her résumé a lot more impressive than mine was at her age: it’s more impressive than mine is now.

But so far, the response to her glorious résumé and glowing recommendations has been. . . almost nothing. Since the economy went over the cliff, she, like many thousands of her bright-eyed cohorts, has been languishing in a limbo of forced unemployment. This state of affairs has not only been dispiriting for young job seekers unable to spot opportunities on the horizon, but disorienting for their parents, feeling their children’s pain and uncertainty about what’s supposed to happen next. It’s as if the gears at one stage of the family life cycle have gotten stuck.

The situation of young people like Signe and families like mine reflects one aspect of a vast change in American families—what they look like, how they behave—which this issue of the Networker seeks to explore. Thirty years ago, the paradigm of family life was simple and largely unquestioned: an intact nuclear family in which parents were boss, or at least they were supposed to be. When kids turned 18 or 21, depending on whether they went to college, they flew the coop for good, got jobs, got married, got babies, got mortgages, and started the whole predictable cycle all over again.

Now, that old vision seems naively antiquated. Ron Taffel, in “Vertically Challenged,” describes the new 21st-century, wildly democratic, hierarchy-be-damned family, in which parents try to make sense of kids who are hard to control, sexually precocious, and deeply marinated in pop culture. As a style of family life, it often looks a lot more like Animal House than Father Knows Best.

Even when the kids grow up, they don’t do what we’ve been taught to think they’re supposed to do: leave! As Martha Straus points out in “Bungee Families,” 65 percent of college grads move back home for a year or two, and about 25 million young adults between 18 and 34 are still living with their parents. In the golden days of family therapy, such arrangements were typically seen as a sure sign of a dysfunctional family—undifferentiated, enmeshed families of “permaparents” and their “wretched, entitled, or manipulative kids.”

So have families and family life just gone straight to hell with the economy? Both Strauss and Taffel give a refreshingly optimistic and upbeat answer. Taffel describes the mind-bending paradoxes of family life today: parents are “confused, dismayed, anxious, shocked, and furious” at their kids, but they’re also “astonished, fascinated, entertained, impressed, and proud–sometimes in rapid succession.” He argues that, for all the confusion, the demise of the old top-down, authority-based family structure may usher in a new, more promising era of free-wheeling, democratic parent-child relationships. Meanwhile, Straus says that the “bungee family”—parents and their bounce-back adult offspring—may provide a healing alternative to the isolation, loneliness, and community fragmentation so typical of our capitalist, ruggedly individualist society.

Perhaps what’s most comforting about the strange new world that both writers describe is how familiar it’s come to seem to many of us: it’s not just our families that appear so anomalous and weird. That should be good news for readers haunted by the idea that their family is out of step with the old ideal. My daughter, my wife, and I just need to get used to it. In today’s world, what was once deemed weird has become the new normal.


Many of his devoted fans have expressed dismay at the absence of Frank Pittman’s Screening Room column in our last issue. Frank has been busy dodging bears and enjoying a break from the rigors of regular movie reviewing at his mountain retreat in Colorado. He informs us that when he returns to an altitude at which people can breathe, he’ll go to the movies and tell you about it.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.