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Millennials, Gen Z & The Rise of Family Estrangement

Written by Eli Crofoot
Published on September 6, 2023

The Evolution of Family Dynamics

Within our collective cultural consciousness built up over the generations, family has been cemented as one of, if not the most important bond a person can have, one traditionally viewed as unbreakable. However, in recent years and within the generations currently making their way through young adulthood, this idea of inextricable family ties no matter what has seemed to dissipate considerably.

Family Estrangement in the Modern Age

According to studies conducted by Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer, 27% of Americans over the age of 18 are now completely estranged from at least one close family member. As multi-generational households become more and more uncommon and ties to extended family in general have grown weaker, the idea of an unbreakable obligation to sticking by family no matter what is now seeming to become a thing of the past – for better and for worse.

There are Complex Reasons Behind Estrangement

 There are several quite legitimate and understandable reasons for cutting out a family member from your life or even removing yourself from that family circle entirely,  most obviously because physical, psychological, or sexual abuse – or for LGBT+ people, to escape a repressive or actively homophobic or transphobic environment. However, there are also factors which are less outwardly monstrous or harmful, yet can still build up over time into an untenable living situation – and as well as factors which can lead to an empty hole in the hearts of an entire family when small conflicts are needlessly amplified into a complete disconnect.

Social & Cultural Factors Behind Estrangement

Throughout human history, there have essentially always been socio-political conflicts between older and younger generations, but our collective increase in isolation through social media and the internet have exacerbated these conflicts in a way that makes it vastly more difficult to come to any sort of mutual understanding. 

Online right-wing radicalization through conspiracy theories like Q-Anon have caused almost irreproachable divides between family members, with family alienation even sometimes being seen as a point of pride within these communities – while the intense focus of many young people on fighting against oppressive social and political structures and holding people to account for misdeeds can filter into the domestic, occasionally inflaming family divides which could possibly otherwise be resolved. 

Older and younger generations have now, through the internet and especially social media algorithms, had their basic conceptions of reality separated so thoroughly to the point where finding anywhere to meet in the middle is nearly impossible, with the basic consensus reality once shared by society now a shattered collection of factional identities diametrically opposed to each other.

The Impact of Familial Estrangement

Societal emphasis on self-reliance and independence for young people can also help create a sometimes false impression of the needlessness of family connections, strengthening a belief that you need nothing and no one but yourself. This pursuit of self-protection and self-reliance above all else can lead to family estrangement feeling like a far less momentous decision than it truly is – and one often only realizes the true value of having support from family until it is too late. 

Even when a familial relationship is strained or difficult, it is important to at least consider the idea of working through these issues together before approaching estrangement. No matter who is estranging who, when a tight familial connection is severed completely, apart from circumstances where staying in contact is truly dangerous – there is a void left in all involved that can never truly be filled. 

Losing a family, no matter how or why, is one of the hardest things a human being can go through – and while pursuing a genuine dialogue can be difficult, being forced to truly let down your guard and engage in the struggles and trauma of the past and plot an uncertain path forward, the results can ultimately be far more emotionally rewarding than any disconnection could be. 

The Journey Towards Familial Reconnection

Even if you have already been estranged from a loved one for an extended period – it still isn’t too late to work through your differences and find a newfound understanding. As Pillemer’s studies have shown, almost no parents or children reunited after a long period of separation regret this reconnection. Time away from a difficult family relationship can be incredibly helpful to reestablish boundaries and create a more understanding environment when the time comes to

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