In my clinical practice, I have observed that parents of young men outnumber parents of young women in failing to launch 9:1. In national studies, more males between the ages of 18-29 are living at home than females. I have been curious about this trend, and one day I was watching Smerconish on Saturday morning. He had Nicholas Eberstadt, from the American Enterprise Institute, describing the collapse of employment of men of prime working age (25-54). He titled these men Not in The Labor Force, NILFs for short. Eberstadt claims that this country’s actual unemployment is not 3%. If you include the NILf’s, unemployment is closer to 14%, rivaling the out-of-work segment during the great depression. The NILF problem since the mid-1960s has been a straight-line trend upward.
The NILF Trend
In an earlier episode of Smerconish, a professor from NYU, Scott Galloway, lamented the trend of males dropping out of college or deciding not to attend. In the past, males were sixty percent of the college population, and women were forty percent. Now the trend has reversed. He raised a concern that one of the most dangerous segments of our population is young, unemployed, and uneducated males. I sat there and watched this show and thought: “Oh my gosh, I am working with parents of males who are beginning to show signs of becoming lifetime NILfs.” Before you push the panic button, if you have a young male adult at home who is struggling, most of this population will right themselves and ultimately land on their feet. At the same time, what will reverse this trend if these males opt out of work or education early in their young adult lives? Furthermore, what women or potential partners will be attracted to these NILFs?
A twenty-two-year-old female client with an engineering degree dated a young man working on the line in a company where she was a supervisor. Although she had some attraction to him, she commented: “I could never marry him because he does not have a college degree.” What I am pointing out in this example is not that everyone needs a college degree, but the disparity in education between this woman and this man was clearly a hindrance to a future together.
The Role of Parents
Most parents I see have males in the age of what has begun to be referred to as the emerging adult population: 18-29. These young men are struggling with identity, independence, and intimacy. Many, no thanks to COVID, have landed at home and are having trouble returning to life outside, whether work or further education. On the positive side, there is good support for emerging adults taking their time in deciding who they are, what they want to do, and with whom they want to spend their lives. But parents have a significant role in facilitating the launch of these males through what they do and do not do for them. Some parents can be ruthless. They tell these men, “It’s my way or the highway,” and it’s “time to hit the road, ready or not.” This message doesn’t bode well for these males’ self-esteem and confidence in venturing into educational programs or work. The message is not I believe in you, but I don’t care about you; I’ve done my job as a parent, and it’s time you face the real world.
Some males can handle this challenge with little emotional support from their parents. But many others flounder. At the same time, the relationship between these young males and their parents, often fathers, may be irreparably damaged.
Setting Boundaries and Standards
Some parents inadvertently contribute to the problem of NILFs by coddling or being too soft and nurturing, not expecting any movement to self-sufficiency and independence. Often these parents mean well and sometimes are fearful that their young adult, who is anxious or depressed, may get worse if they push too hard. The parent’s anxiety or, in some cases, intimidation by the young adult hamstring them from taking a firm stand that the young person living at home needs to either work or go to school full-time. In my work with parents, I have stated that work or school should be a condition for living at home, even if the young adult shows signs of anxiety and depression. All parents I work with agree with this requirement but often fear the impact of insisting on this. If concerns with depression or anxiety stand in the way of meeting this work or education requirement, expect them to get help. It’s not easy to find the right balance of nurturance and backbone. Unfortunately, the message sent by a parent who doesn’t require work or school can reinforce the self-talk of the young adult that they are a loser.
When I was studying with Bill Smith at Wilder Child Guidance Clinic, he shared his list of ten antidepressant interventions. Two of these were work and exercise. One doesn’t get over depression or anxiety by sitting at home in a world of “ain’t it awful.” Feelings don’t just change, even with medications. But getting out to exercise and work creates a sense of capability and can pull the feelings along more positively. If you can’t get your son or daughter to move forward, jump-start the process. Start exercising with them, even just walking with them. Help them with a resume, check jobs online, take them to an employer, and do as much as you can short of interviewing for them. They may need this boost to get going. Letting them sit around the house, play video games, and feel sorry for themselves should not be an option.
Is it depression/anxiety or failure to launch? My argument is that it’s likely both. When I interview young adults regarding their five-year plan and their current rating of satisfaction and happiness in their lives on a scale of 0-10 (10= completely happy and satisfied), they typically rate their status between two and five. After we work on a five-year plan and I ask them how they would feel if they made their objectives in their five-year plan, the answer is typically seven or above. With true depression, most people can’t see anything good in their past or the future, so the current and future state ratings should be the same. My finding suggests that depression is a function of their feeling stuck and not progressing on their developmental tasks. They will often compare their lack of traction on these tasks to their friends’ progress, which adds to their despair. So, school or work or even volunteering and exercise are not just essential steps toward responsible adulthood but critical antidepressants.