Does Your Millennial Really Need a New iPhone?

When is an upgrade a declaration of independence and when is it something else?

Posted Oct 03, 2018

Even though I’ve never bought an Apple product, I can always tell when a new iPhone has been introduced. I get more than the usual queries from parents asking me how to manage their grown kids’ requests to add the newest, shiniest, most amazing iteration of the iPhone to their cell phone contract—the family plan they already pay for.  

I get that plenty of 20-somethings are already using iPhones; surveys show they’re the most heavily dependent on mobile phones. They have “short fuses for gadgets that don’t work smoothly,” and reviewers have called the newest version the most millennial phone yet. (Washington Post, Sept. 24). They cost over a thousand dollars—not that much compared to a top-line tablet or medium-priced laptop—and they can be added to a cell phone user’s account for less than a couple of lattes a week.

Those are just a few of the arguments with which young people lobby their parents; not just the affluent middle-class parents who don‘t say no to their kids’ requests very often, but others, like the single mother of a college student who can barely manage to pay her own cell phone bills. “She said she’d cover the phone lease every month, but she said that about her car insurance, too, and I’m still paying for that,” one client said. Another client, who describes his son as “incredibly entitled” and complains about it often, suggests that maybe the son might “pay for half of it upfront to show my son he’s got some skin in this game, too.” 

For anyone prone to making generalizations about this or any other generation, both “entitled” and “materialistic” come up so often they’ve become tropes and are most frequently repeated by baby boomers, who were similarly judged when they were younger. “I was lucky and yes, privileged,” says one of those boomers, now the parent of two young adults who think upgraded luxury items are their due. “But I never felt entitled to anything, especially when I had a job and could buy it myself.”

“It’s not the extra money I object to, but his old phone was a Christmas present last year, and it’s still in perfect condition,” a parent tells me. Yes, yes, and yes. I suggest that she ask her kid to price what it’s worth on a trade-in, the way he would if he were buying a new car and trading in his old one. I advise another parent to agree, but only with a written agreement that her daughter pay her share of the cell phone bill promptly on the first of the month, and drop her line from the phone contract if she doesn’t. I tell the one who offered to pay for half of it up front to do so only if his son also pays the fee to ensure it in case of loss or theft; it would be the fourth time the loose-fingered lad’s phone has gone missing! I suggested to all those parents that such phone requests should be viewed in the context of their whole relationship with their young adults—and if they felt that saying no would change things between them, it might be worth considering who was struggling with role independence here, the parent or the child?  

Most parents don’t like to say no, especially if their usual habit is to say yes, particularly when money isn’t a problem. But automatically agreeing to every request makes it difficult to explain things when you don’t. “But you spend X times more on Y!” will probably be their first response.  “In this case, we feel that a new phone is not necessary; your present phone is fine, and if it’s not, you’re capable of replacing it without our help.” The first time you deny them something they want may be difficult for both of you, but it will get easier for them once they realize you mean it and easier for you when you do.

I’m not suggesting that you turn into the Grinch who stole Christmas—which might be a good time to gift them if you’re so inclined. But indulging the desire for every extravagance is as bad an idea when they’re 25 as it was when they were much younger, and it’s never too late to cultivate a new habit, one that's better suited to the mutual relationship that should be the goal for parents and their adult children. In my first book on parenting grown kids, I wrote that one sure sign of independence was “when they stop calling home collect.”  Clearly, that’s an anachronism in 2018. Paying for their own cell service, or a phone they purchased themselves—even in an era of family cell phone plans with unlimited data and extra lines—may be a more relevant indicator of independence. Sometimes, a new iPhone is more than just a new iPhone.