When your grown-up kids drop by to visit, do they still come with bags of laundry? How often do they leave with bags of leftovers—and maybe even a bit of cash—alongside their neatly folded, clean clothes?
According to a recent Reuters report, there are many Baby Boomer parents in this country who are supporting their adult kids in lots of ways, with moms being the go-to person 60 percent of the time when offspring run into economic problems. The report was based on an online survey in Florida conducted by a research firm called Kitchen's Group. They found that "of women with children over age 18, nine percent said they had adult children living back home for indefinite periods. Twelve percent were primarily responsible for their adult child or children's financial well-being and 31 percent said they had children who returned home, relied on them but expected to become independent."
Although parents are not legally obliged to support children over the age of 18 (and in years past, few parents did), and although 86 percent of the Boomer moms in the survey were financially independent by the time they were 25 years old, it is clear that many parents today will do what they can to help their adult children. AARP confirms this new trend, saying the stats from the smaller Florida survey are in line with their own larger ones, which have shown that 69 percent of their members currently provide some level of financial support to their adult children.
So what are the reasons behind this cultural shift? Is it a positive trend indicating that more young adults feel free to seek support from their parents as they struggle to establish themselves in their careers? Does it suggest greater closeness between moms and their kids, a kind of intimacy that was less common in previous generations? Or is it less positive, indicating an increasing over-dependence by children on their parents and vice versa? Perhaps, more worrisome, does it reflect a reluctance among 20-somethings to stand on their own two feet, resulting in a culturally induced laziness enabled by Boomer parents?
The most apparent reason for young adults taking longer to become financially independent is clearly the current state of our economy. The Millennial generation reached their 20s just as the stock market crashed and a global economic downturn began. They entered the workforce as unemployment was rising, jobs were being eliminated and a college degree no longer ensured career opportunities. For many, moving back home or asking for financial help gave them the option to pursue unpaid internships, seek further schooling or simply wait out the recession.
Although most of these young adults say that they would prefer to live on their own and be financially independent, when their parents offer help, most take it. Some have little choice. Others want to maintain the kind of lifestyle they were used to—or feel entitled to—and hope to avoid taking jobs they believe are beneath them. And parents go to great lengths to help meet their children's wishes. One financial website writes that "mothers and fathers don't always plan to be paying for their child's expenses" after they reach the age of adulthood and find themselves filing for bankruptcy as they accumulate debt trying to help their kids become independent.
Empty Nest vs. "Empty Next"
Consider, too, that requests for financial help by adult children tap into the already existing ambivalence many Boomer mothers feel about this phase of their lives. Moms who have spent their 20s, 30s and 40s caring for their children feel pulled in opposing directions as their midlife approaches—to hold on or move on. While they may begin preparing for their years ahead without children and even look forward to spending more time on themselves, there continues to be a strong pull to hold on to what is familiar—the full house, even if messy bedrooms and empty fridges are left behind.
Instinctively, many Boomer moms yearn for (or can easily be lulled back into) their role as caretaker—the go-to person. Being needed helps some women maintain their sense of purpose just as they face fears about becoming invisible, both physically and emotionally. (I like to call this phase the "empty next," so that women focus less on losing their nest and more on what can come next; see chapter seven in my book, "Face It; What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change.") Supporting children during this time can be viewed by some women as fulfilling, even if at the same time it financially drains them.
New Family Structure
Then there's the fact that in the last 20 years, our family structure has become a great deal more child-centered, even as those children become full-fledged adults. No longer is Dad at the head of the table as Mom serves the meals and tells the children to go off to play quietly—think "Father Knows Best" being replaced by the kind of gatherings in "Brothers and Sisters." Not only is the family dinner a thing of the past, but most mealtimes, weekends and vacations are now oriented around the kids' activities: soccer practices, ballet classes, tutors, camps and other extra-curricular interests. Often both parents work, some even taking on extra jobs or second mortgages, just to finance their kids' active and enriched lives.
With children growing up assuming that parents will make these kinds of sacrifices, it isn't surprising that they expect them to continue right through adulthood. Helicopter parenting can lead to overly dependent children who are loathe to give up their hovering but supportive families. We have to ask ourselves whether the wonder years have become the wander years, with too many young people ultimately lost because they were coddled too long.
That Boomers remember their young adulthood differently isn't difficult to understand. These women were raised by post-depression parents who emphasized the importance of financial self-reliance. Boomer women were also pioneers of the feminist movement. Economic success was not only about financial security, but served to ensure that they would avoid the dependency their mothers felt on men. These moms were among the first to break many of the glass ceilings that their Millennial children now take for granted. The result? Young adults today—especially 20-something women—view financial dependence neither as a failure nor as a betrayal of their political beliefs as many of their mothers might have. They are less embarrassed about what they see as a temporary and transitional stage. And since some of these moms wrestle with residual regret having pursued careers while leaving kids at home, indulging them now can meet needs all around—relieving moms of their guilt while helping out their grown children
No doubt, the statistics indicating that more Boomer mothers support their adult kids reflect complicated psychological and cultural issues. And this recent Reuter's report doesn't even begin to explore the father's role in this family dynamic. Is it possible that moms are the go-to person, viewed as having a softer touch, while dads are the go-away ones, more likely concerned about money matters? Are fathers hesitant to offer support because they worry that it will foster dysfunctional dependency? Do different attitudes about this issue contribute to marital problems in addition to financial stress at midlife? Maybe more importantly, given that many Baby Boomers have not planned for their own personal and economic futures, this trend raises questions about the long-term impact on how it will all work out in the end—for parents and children alike.
We can all benefit from a better understanding of this cultural phenomenon. What do you think about adult children being financially supported by their moms or dads if they are in the position to help?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.
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