by Vicki Larson
Not too long ago, I ran into a friend hanging around a downtown coffee shop. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I asked him a question that just a year or so ago was a pretty simple one, but now, given our economic realities, is much more complicated and often cringe-producing: “How are you doing?”
“Great!” he said with genuine enthusiasm.
In a way I wasn’t surprised; he’s one of a handful of people I know who have not bought into the American Dream. He makes a living, but just enough to get by; rents instead of owning; drives a beater car; forgoes fancy vacations and dinners; pays with cash instead of credit cards, and uses his various well-honed skills to hop from job to job. And he makes no apologies for it; he loves the freedom.
So he’s barely impacted by the economic meltdown.
In the not so distant past, most people may have looked at that sort of lifestyle and ridiculed it. No career path? No Ivy League degree? Loser!
But oh, how things have changed! The sure-bet careers are disappearing, and as Wall Street Journal “Work & Family” columnist Sue Shellenbarger writes in “Raising Kids Who Can Thrive Amid Chaos in Their Careers,” “The recession is driving home a bitter truth about the 21st-century job market: A tidy, linear path to a secure career is increasingly hard to find.”
It’s hard for middle-aged people like me to deal with that without reinventing ourselves, and many do. But, as Shellenbarger suggests, the skills needed to “ride the job-market surf” — not only the technical and professional skills, but the “squishy” ones — should be taught starting in childhood.
But as I read Shellenbarger’s “squishy” skills— adaptability, exploration, entrepreneurialism — I realized that, as children of divorce, my kids are already way ahead of the game.
Could it be that having to navigate the world of divorce has prepared my kids for the 21st-century job market? Perhaps.
We’ve all heard the doom-and-gloom stories about the legacy of divorce, most notably Judith Wallerstein’s landmark study chronicled in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce .” It’s true that children of divorce often tend to fear commitment, have abandonment issues and are conflict-avoidance in matters of the heart. Divorce, with all its chaos and changes, can also put kids at academic risk.
But there’s an upside to divorce, too, as Robert Emery, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children and Families and the Law at the University of Virginia, says.
If their divorced parents handle things well, children can learn resilience, says Emery, author of “The Truth About Children and Divorce .” And resilience will go far in the changing job market Shellenbarger describes.
Max Sindell would agree. The San Francisco Bay Area native’s parents divorced when he was just 6. Sixteen years later, he wrote, “The Bright Side: Surviving Your Parents Divorce ,” a guidebook to help other kids.
Once he had figured out his own needs, he says, divorce gave him numerous opportunities to grow and become stronger. He traveled, sometimes alone; had many interesting people enter his life; and he learned how to solve his own problems and be independent — all characteristics of people who adapt well to change.
Kids also get to see a different side of their parents, especially if a former stay-at-home parent takes on new pursuits after divorce — goes back to school, starts a new career or re-enters the workplace. Parents can be role models for their kids, showing them that it’s OK to try new things without being afraid to fail.
I know that my teens view me differently since I started working full time after my divorce. Although I’m much more tired and less available than I once was, they know how much I love my career and how it enriches me. True, they have to shuffle back and forth between two houses, but they see that I’m as able to provide a safe, happy, healthy home as their father is.
Plus, they’ve learned how to take care of things for themselves, whether it’s arranging a ride to get to a baseball game or biking to the store to pick up poster board for a school project.
Sure, they complain about how much they have to do — they’re teenagers, after all! — but I know that they’re proud of how they’ve solved things on their own without having Mom do it for them.
Now, I’m certainly not recommending that people head for divorce court to help their kids face tomorrow’s workplace challenges. But the reality is, more than a million kids every year experience their parents’ divorce.
That’s a lot of adaptable, happily risk-taking, entrepreneurial future workers!