Failure to launch has become a buzzword to describe stereotypical young adults stuck in the basement of their parent’s home and making no progress toward accepting adult responsibilities. It was popularized by the movie Failure to Launch, starring Matthew McConaughey. Google the phrase, and you will find it’s not a formal diagnosis but is referred to as a syndrome characterized by a young adult being unable or unwilling to leave home and support themselves. Incidentally, I’d like to challenge some assumptions and perspectives, and redefine the stage of development where this so-called “syndrome” typically occurs.
A Matter of Criteria
First, I do not use the criteria of living outside the house as the hallmark of a successful launch. This disregards the universal trend of multigenerational families living together. I don’t consider the adult child, living at home, who is self-sufficient, independent – financially and emotionally – and a full contributor to the family’s costs and household responsibilities a failure to launch. In such cases, parents should not feel like they failed to launch their adult child either.
No One-Size-Fits All Solution
Second, describing young adults transitioning into full adulthood as failing to launch is not helpful. After all, when does a young adult’s transition become a failure to launch – at 18, 21, 25, 30? I hear some of you say well, not at 18 or 21, but at 25 or 30, YIKES. We are much more accepting of young children who demonstrate a delay in some developmental areas – motor skills, social skills, speech, etc. But we don’t allow for the same variation in young adult development. We tend to move to a “one size fits all” mentality when it comes to our young adult children and believe they should be out of the house and self-sufficient by a certain age, generally in their early twenties. We often relate to our kids through the lens of our own experience and how we couldn’t wait to leave home or were strongly encouraged to do so by our parents
Parents Are a Part of the Process
Third, the phrase “failure to launch” can come back and bite us as parents when it becomes clear that we are part of the launch process. Our friends may ask what our son or daughter is doing as they tout the success of their offspring. We really don’t want to say that our adult child is ensconced in the basement because we know that reflects poorly on us. We start to wonder where we have gone wrong or what we are doing or not doing to enable this lack of progress toward adulthood. When we talk about a delay in the transition to adulthood, which is a more acceptable characterization, we have to talk about the contributions of parents as well as young adults in this regard.
Using Pejoratives is Not Helpful
Fourth, even if parents and young adults are complicit in the delayed transition, using pejorative terms to describe each party’s contributions is not helpful. Calling parents “Helicopter” parents or a term I recently came across, “Bulldozer” parents, isn’t beneficial and amplifies a level of guilt these parents may feel. Likewise, calling young adults entitled, lazy, or trophy kids, referring to everyone getting a participation trophy whether the team won or not, isn’t helpful. Using such language to label parents or kids does a great disservice to both parties. Parents are well-intended, love their kids, and want them to be happy and successful. And our young adults are taking more time to figure out who they are, their path in life, and who they want to join them on that path.
Why is the Attainment of Full Adulthood Taking Longer?
In fact, it is taking longer for young adults to attain full adulthood, as evidenced by the record number of young adults still living with one or both parents (PEW, 52%). In another study, most Americans believe it is harder for young adults today. Well, maybe they don’t have to walk five miles through the snow to get to school because they now take their car or an Uber but look at the challenges listed below. Many of these didn’t exist when we were young adults. You’ll notice that many of the influences on delayed development are related to changes in society, which are more difficult to influence.
- Increased financial burden of college debt and living costs, especially housing.
- Technology has increased connectivity, but young adults are the loneliest segment of the population, and many young adults default to their bedroom and only connect in the digital world.
- Video and cell phone addictions, often in isolation, are absorbing a lot of time, energy, and focus, which could be used to get out of work, volunteer, or meet others. Virtual reality goggles allow for an experience of the world that isn’t real. Why climb a mountain with friends when you can strap on the goggles and fool your brain into thinking you are scaling the Matterhorn alone?
- Mental health and substance abuse has increased, especially during the pandemic, and reports of anxiety and depression, highest for young adults, have not subsided. Many young adults sidelined with COVID haven’t recovered their confidence and are anxious about working forty hours a week.
- There is a growing disillusionment with the value of a four-year degree but not a corresponding redirection to community colleges or the trades. There are a lack of incentives for considering something other than a four year college.
- Young people are taking more time to find the right job that affords an opportunity to have a greater work-life balance than they observed their parents. Young people change jobs every two years during their twenties.
- Parents, beginning with my generation of boomers, have invested more of their self-worth in their children’s success. When a young adult is struggling, parents may unintentionally become more overprotective, overinvolved, or intervene in ways that undermine the young adult’s ability to succeed. Most parents provide love and nurturance but often don’t offer the backbone to say “no” or exhibit confidence in the young adult to step up to the challenge.
How Should we Talk About this Transition Period?
We need to stop berating parents or young adults with demeaning labels and recognize that this is a more challenging time than when we were young. We need to adopt a new language to describe this experience for parents and young adults. There has been an effort in developmental psychology to delineate a stage of development between the age of 18-29 and normalize this as a time of experimentation and exploration. Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has proposed this period between 18-29 as a new stage of development called emerging adulthood. We need to allow, if not support, extended efforts to define one’s identity, especially related to work, establish one’s emotional and financial independence, and create friendships, including one with a significant other. Parents need to redefine their role with young adults on their journey to adulthood and offer coaching, consulting, and collaboration. In my work with parents and young adults, I foster a partnership between the parties around the plans of the young adult. This approach works better than trying to influence or direct the young adult toward some preconceived idea of what the parent believes will lead to success and happiness. We can start using the new language of emerging adulthood, a transition period, and partnering as parents to approach this significant time in life.