The Kids Aren't All Right
It's Saturday night...and I read this article in, of all things,
my alumnae magazine. I was deeply saddened by this article.
Also reassured. I don't feel so alone.
What do you think?
From the Smith Quarterly Online -
The Kids Aren't All Right
A generation of young adults tells their parents: 'We won't grow up.' Why can't they seem to get a foothold, and what's a parent, facing her own retirement, to do?
By Jane Lubchansky Adams ’60
We’re at dinner, at cocktail parties, at college reunions, peers of mine—all of us in our fifties and sixties—sharing the details of our landmark birthdays, our plans for retirement, our health, and even our unions. When, however, the conversation turns, as it always does, to how our children are doing, the answers become pat and predictable: “The kids are all right.”
The truth is that some of those kids, who are in their twenties and thirties by now, are not all right. They’re failing to thrive. Despite having every constitutional and environmental advantage—including healthy minds and bodies and loving and intelligent parents—many of our children are not growing into the independent, generous, kind, happy, successful, law-abiding, contributing citizens we expected them to be.
Where baby boomers took their parents’ values and went on to create secure lives for their families, this new generation of “adultolescents,” as they’ve come to be known, is having a difficult time breaking free from the parental cocoon and starting their own lives. A study conducted among 600 young adults in 1997 revealed that almost a third have downsized the ambitions they had at 18, and half of them believe their goals will never be accomplished. Census Bureau statistics from 2000 indicate that more than half of 21- to 24-year-olds and a third of 25- to 34-year-olds still live at home or have boomeranged back more than once since college graduation. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports that illegal drugs, especially heroin and amphetamines, have made stunning inroads among middle-class young adults, whose rates of suicide, alcoholism, eating disorders, and depression have tripled in the past two decades. And according to sociologist William Aquilino (in The Parental Experience in Midlife), 40 percent of grown kids are excessively dependent on their parents for financial and emotional support.
The result of all this is a growing population of angry, scared, resentful, worried, embarrassed, and guilt-racked parents who can’t escape the feeling that their children are missing out on life because of something they did or failed to do when they were younger. One woman related her frustration at watching her 27-year-old daughter move home for the third time since college and sit around the house, aimless, depressed, bulimic, unemployed, and in debt. “This is what I expected: for her to finish her education, even if it took her a few years more than it took me; to explore what’s out there, all the opportunities open to her, and choose one that’s likely to give her a rewarding or meaningful career, or at least a decent job; to pay her own way, even if I have to provide a safety net for a while; to be emotionally independent—to own her own feelings and not blame me for her failures; to play by the rules and not take dumb risks that could ruin her life; and, oh yes, find a cure for cancer, give me a few grandchildren, and call home once in a while. Was that too much to ask?”
Apparently, it is. So what happened? Why are twentysomethings and thirtysomethings clinging so tightly to the nest, and why are we as parents so hard-pressed to get tough and give them the push they need to get on with their lives? The answer may have something to do with our own upbringing and how shifting social mores spearheaded by baby boomers helped reshape the culture—as well as parenting styles—during the sixties and seventies.
The baby-boom generation is the largest, richest, and most educated generation in history. Baby boomers reaped the benefit of the economic security that was their parents’ most important goal, and though most knew they were privileged, few felt entitled—at least not the way grown children do today. Even the most idealistic baby boomers didn’t expect to achieve their career goals without a long apprenticeship and a lot of hard work. They didn’t feel entitled to a lifestyle marked by extended dependence, or expect to enjoy the same standard of living at 25 that their parents spent decades attaining. Baby boomers were eager for their independence, and by the time they had the responsibilities that come with it, they were (mostly) ready for them.
Then, in the 1970s, the winds of social change had ushered in a new set of values and expectations. Life structures and relationships began to shift, creating a culture of divorce as well as nine million single parents who by the end of the decade were raising their children alone. People’s attitudes, too, had changed with the sexual revolution, feminism, and the human potential movement. Suddenly, it became important not only to provide for your children but also to pay attention to their inner psychological needs. This may be the biggest legacy of the “me” decade, which popularized the notion of happiness as an entitlement—not the pursuit of happiness, but happiness itself. Parents began paying an inordinate amount of attention to their children’s emotional state, their human potential, their self-esteem, and their overall happiness. As a result, when parents couldn’t provide the “perfect home” for their children, they became consumed by parental guilt, which lingers to this day. As 57-year-old Gloria said, “I couldn’t give my kids what every child deserves—a happy two-parent home. I couldn’t even give them a home where one parent was always there; I had to work. So they started out with two big disadvantages. I guess I feel that it’s up to me to make up for that.”
A recent study that examined how parents evaluate their adult children’s achievements and adjustment—and how those assessments affect parents’ own sense of self-worth—indicated that wanting their children to be personally fulfilled is a goal unique to the baby- boom generation. With parents having gone to sometimes extraordinary lengths to ensure their kids’ happiness, it’s no surprise that their grown children expect them to continue to provide it, forgetting that they need to take responsibility for finding it themselves in the satisfactions of work, love, connection, commitment, and achievement. The fact is, parents can’t make their grown kids happy; only the kids themselves can. But as long as parents think that it’s their job, so will their children. The result: nobody’s happy.
Kicking Out My Son