Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about the title of this book. Why slouching?
Sally Koslow: The behavior of many people aged 22 to 35, the group I studied for my book, bears scant resemblance to the way their Boomer moms and dads marched off to jobs, marriage and parenthood--all markers of traditional “adulthood”-- by the mid-20’s. There’s significant social and academic arrhythmia now. It takes the average American student more than four years to get a bachelor’s degree, partly because it’s common to switch majors, and after that, we see considerable drift—internship to internship, job to job (if anyone can find one,) apartment to apartment, even country to country, and partner to partner. 28 is the new 19. Hence: slouching.
JH: Have you personally dealt with nudging your children out of the nest?
SK:Who hasn’t? One of my sons got off to a running start after college graduation by moving from Manhattan to San Francisco for an internship that turned into a job in the music industry. When he was 25 his company relocated him back to NYC to start a new branch. He moved in with us while he began that effort. Then, splat, the record label where he worked went belly up. My son became jobless. He was not, however, unhappy. Collecting unemployment carried no stigma among his circle and offered a pretty sweet life of sleeping late, meeting friends every night and doing only casual job-hunting. My husband and I eventually found out that he had been offered a position he was planning to decline because it wasn’t his ideal. In a conversation one shout short of an intervention, we strongly urged him to accept the job and get on with his life. He did, and moved in with a band in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, fittingly called Oddjobs.
JH: Why is it so much difficult today than even ten years ago for young adults to develop lives autonomous from their parents? Is it just about the job market?
SK: The economy has done no favors for young adults. They’ve gotten the national short straw. But the rest of the story is that parents bear some responsibility for insulating adult children from hardship. With the wisdom of hindsight, many of us (parents) realized we saw our kids start to wander, and perhaps even encouraged it. We patiently tried to talk through every choice and sorrow while we curated files on worthwhile programs for kids because we were convinced we’d spawned, say, the next Mother Theresa, not just a girl who likes Bollywood movies. We’ve given our children the sense that possibilities will always be ahead of them. But opportunities don’t stay fresh forever. By the time a person is in, say, his/her mid- or late-20’s he/she might not be able to begin even at the entry level in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Additionally, for women, after the mid-30’s fertility takes a deep dive, so social slouching behavior can have long-term consequences.
JH: How much of this difficulty in developing independence lies with the parents, and why? And, most importantly, what can we do about it?
SK: The relationship parents have with their adultescents (what I call wanderering young adult in Slouching Toward Adulthood) is a tight weave of guilt and love. We’ve watered, landscaped and hired gardeners to maintain a Great Plains of entitlement for our young adult children, many of whom now exist in a muddle of overconfidence, a sense of endless time and a sucky job market. Parents may sense that at some level kids are ill-equipped to handle quotidian problems because we haven’t taught them hands-on, don’t-wash-the-darks-with-the-lights skills. There’s also more of a peer-to-peer relationship between parents/adult kids than Boomers had with their own parents. When kids whistle, mothers and fathers are all too willing to run and help. What we can do is belatedly try to teach our adult children how to manage on their own and not jump in so readily to solve every problem. As a culture, we need more tough love and perhaps some classes in plumbing, car maintenance and remedial housekeeping.
JH: You say that young adults graduating from college are wandering. How is this different than the wandering many Boomers did — backpacking through Europe and such?
SK: Boomer parents may have had their summer of love, but it rarely lasted even six months. If young adults didn’t “settled down” their parents, people they respected, would have scared the non-existent sunscreen right off of them. Certainly, it was far less usual for parents to subsidize kids in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Now it’s not unusual for the wandering stage and financial support to last as long as a decade.
JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned doing the research and writing this book?
SK: I’ve learned two true things. First, slouching toward adulthood goes beyond the purely personal in many families: our country has a national problem. The massive student debt young Americans carry has, for example, depressed the entire housing market,
Nothing in my life has been as challenging, astonishing and gratifying. as raising two sons. But part of motherhood’s assignment is learning to constantly renegotiate and this is where my generation falls down on the job. Just as we want our faces and fannies to show no signs of aging, in parenting, we cling to the familiar, which is another twist on not wanting to get old. If our kids are still young, then we must be, too! So the Second True Thing is that I, and most of my peers, need to adopt a less-is-more, fade-to-grey style of parenting. None of this is easy or uncomplicated.
Sally Koslow is a journalist, an author, and the former editor in chief of McCall’s and Lifetime. She has written for O, the Oprah Magazine, More, Real Simple, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, and The Huffington Post. She lives in New York City with her husband; her kids have finally moved out. Visit www.sallykoslow.com for more information.