Failure to Launch: What It Is and How to Handle It
With the economy in trouble, the "failure to launch" problem may worsen.
Posted Mar 17, 2020
By Gabriel Banschick
The number of young adults who are struggling with launching successfully has increased substantially in recent years. They fail to engage in activities that typically define adulthood, such as higher education or work.
This behavior is often associated with depression, anxiety, or isolation. It is sometimes difficult to determine if these symptoms contribute to their inability to leave their parents' home or if they are the result of staying at home.
Perhaps they are both. A young person who is prone to anxiety and depression will have difficulty facing the challenges of independence. It is not hard to see that staying at home can exacerbate the situation by eroding self-confidence and inducing shame, which leads to increased depression. It’s a vicious cycle.
Statistics paint a grim picture. Between 2005 and 2010, only 79% percent of 25-year-old high school graduates who had never enrolled in college were employed in civilian jobs or in the military.
The situation of 25-year-old high school graduates who had some college but had not earned a bachelor's degree was better: 84% were employed; 88% of young men moved out of their parents’ homes and 92% of women had. But for many young adults, moving out was not permanent. Among those who moved out, over half moved back at some point before reaching age 271.
According to Pew Research Center, as of 2016, 15% of 25- to 35-year-old Millennials were living in their parents’ homes, a higher rate than that of Generation Xers in 20002.
These numbers are a major cause of concern.
Some of these young adults get involved with drugs; for others, it’s a fixation on video games and such. These activities provide further distraction and may contribute to avoidance, thereby perpetuating the situation.
This phenomenon has come to be known as Failure to Launch (FTL). Bell defines FTL as declining independent living and economic self-sufficiency3. Sometimes the young adult has been to college but then dropped out and was unable to mobilize to go back. That young adult is often unable to procure a full-time paying job or even a part-time job.
Dr. Eli R. Lebowitz provides a composite FTL profile of a young man. He is 23 years old and dropped out of college after a semester, is now living at home, and is totally dependent on his parents financially, as well as on services such as laundry. He isolates in his room and often sleeps during the day4. Unemployment has a detrimental effect on young adults’ psychological well-being. That, coupled with parental financial support, may reduce their psychological resources and their self-efficacy and make the transition to adulthood lengthy and precarious5.
It is important to place this phenomenon in the context of the larger societal trend towards later assumption of adult responsibilities. Arnett coined the term emerging adulthood, a period in which individuals have left the dependency of adolescence but have not yet assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. This is a period when many possibilities exist and various options are explored6.
During emerging adulthood, young people tend to move between transitory states of occupations and residence; they may oscillate between periods of work and periods of unemployment, change occupational directions and come back to parental homes during periods of transition7. However, these young adults are actively engaged in the process of emerging into adulthood through work or study, contrary to the FTL individual, who is characterized by passivity.
Millennials, FTL and Vulnerability:
There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of FTL, including diminishing job opportunities, especially for young people without post-high-school education8. That certainly can make launching harder. But it still does not account for the passivity that characterizes failed launchers.
The role of parents in enabling their offsprings’ passivity can’t be underestimated. Parents’ financial support may decrease the motivation of these young people to move out of the house and become self-sufficient.
In addition, it seems that there are more Millennials who are experiencing increased anxiety and lack of resilience compared to previous generations. Paradoxically, that may be the result of parents’ overindulgence and excessive emotional support. Many of these young people may have never sufficiently learned to face the challenges of life alone, having been deprived of experience in facing and dealing with difficult situations.
Sometimes, the situation is complicated by clinical issues. In some cases, there is a background of clinical anxiety and depression. These conditions may disable people initially and render them less able to cope with the challenges of life. Their increased dependence on their parents and their own passivity may contribute to increased depression and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
To complicate matters even further, there may be an underlining struggle with executive functioning that renders these individuals helpless in the face of the complicated tasks7 of becoming self-sufficient. College students with ADHD find it more challenging than non-diagnosed students to cope with college work. College education is less structured than high school and requires higher levels of time management and executive function (as well as tackling all these new tasks without the support of parents). Consequently, their executive dysfunction is greater than non-diagnosed students and their grades are lower8.
Looking for jobs, applying, sending resumes and following through require discipline, motivation, and resilience, especially in a job market with diminishing opportunities9. If there is underlying anxiety, anticipating interviews may exacerbate the anxiety and make it harder for the applicant to present as self-confident and enthusiastic.
As rejections inevitably arrive, the self-confidence of the young adult may erode further and anxiety and depression can increase. Looking for jobs is difficult even for adults who do not suffer from complicating issues; for a young adult who struggles with anxiety, depression, passivity and any of the underlying causes of FTL, it is even more challenging and can become another disabling factor.
Coming up soon:
What can be done to help young people who have yet to launch.
Gabriel Banschick is a 3rd-year medical student at Tel Aviv University. He has been conducting research and contributing to this blog for the past several years.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Young adult employment varies by education on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2013/ted_20130307.htm (visited February 14, 2020).
2. Fry, R. (2017, May 5). More young adults are living at home, and for longer stretches. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/05/its-becoming-more-common-for-young-adults-to-live-at-home-and-for-longer-stretches/
3. Bell, Lisa; Burtless, Gary; Gornick, Janet; Smeeding, Timothy M. (2007): Failure to launch: Cross-national trends in the transition to economic independence, LISWorking Paper Series, No. 456, Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), Luxembourg
4. Lebowitz, E. (2016). Failure to Launch”: Shaping Intervention for Highly Dependent Adult Children. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 55(2), 89–90.
5. Mortimer JT, Kim M, Swartz TT. Unemployment, parental help, and self-efficacy during the transition to adulthood; Paper presented at the IUSSP Seminar on Intergenerational Ties and Transitions to Adulthood; 2010, November; Milan, Italy.
6. Arnett, J. (2000). Emerging Adulthood. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480.
7. Shulman, S., Feldman, B., Blatt, S., Cohen, O., & Mahler, A. (2005). Emerging Adulthood: Age-Related Tasks and Underlying Self Processes. Journal of Adolescent Research.
8. Weyandt, L., DuPaul, G.J., Verdi, G. et al. The Performance of College Students with and without ADHD: Neuropsychological, Academic, and Psychosocial Functioning. J Psychopathol Behav Assess.
9. Carnevale, A., Hanson, A., & Gulish, A. (2013). Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation. Washington DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.