Failure to Launch
The Millenial dilemma.
Posted Jul 07, 2018
Recently the eyes of the world were riveted on a court case in Upstate New York. At the centre of the media storm was a couple, pictured sitting stoically in a courtroom, who were using the legal system to remove their 30-year-old son from the family home. How could it have come to this? Journalists, news anchors, and radio disc jockeys rushed in to try and make sense of this story which seemed to resonate around the world.
There was good reason for British journalists to show up on the lawn of this family – this is not just an American problem. From Italy to Britain to Canada, more and more millennials are failing to launch and remain at home well into their thirties. The 2016 Canadian census showed a record-breaking 34.7 percent of young adults remained in the family home.[i]
While economics, longer education times and helicopter parenting clearly have something to do with this situation we will leave those aspects to others to examine. In this post we want to look at the psychology that is contributing to the increasingly common phenomenon of children who are seemingly unable to move into adulthood. A number of changes have occurred within our societies in the last 40 years to contribute to this seemingly baffling situation.
Beginning in the 1960’s Jungian analyst Marie-Louise Von Franz gave a series of lectures on a complex that she referred to as the puer aeternus. Von Franz described this syndrome as someone who “remains too long in adolescent psychology.”[ii] At the time that she was giving these lectures, this was a very rare psychological problem, but societal changes have resulted in it becoming increasingly common. Across the western world sociological surveys are registering a sea change in how people move, or don’t, into adulthood.
More and more people seem to be getting caught in the phase of adolescence in both their attitudes and lifestyles unable to move into full adulthood. This inability has implication both for the psychological health of the individual and the well-being of their families. If the child cannot move into adulthood their parents also cannot move onto the next stage of their lives.
What few have seemed to note amid all the public discussion is that adulthood is not a given but is defined by family, culture and society. We are not born knowing what a adult is or how one is supposed to act. However, many millennials are left without clear definitions about what a mature person would look or act like. Along with many progressive changes, some of the negative impact of the 1960’s has been an obsession with youth and a suspicion of adulthood that continues to linger long after the hippie generation crossed the 30-year mark and thus were unable to trust themselves.
Contributing to this problem is the fact that many in our society have discarded the rituals that used to usher us through the different phases of life. Without these rites of passage and clearly marked changes in status it is very easy to become caught in what anthropologist van Gennep referred to as a liminal state betwixt and between. With the decline of religious practice and community life fewer people now have access to the rites of passage that structure human and community life. As van Gennep writes, these rituals "enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined." [iii]
Around the world there a wide variety of usually religiously based rituals that signal to the individual, and their community that they are moving into adulthood. These range from the confirmation ceremonies of Christianity to the bar and bat mitzvahs of Judaism and the Tirundukuli of Hinduism and many more. These ceremonies witnessed by family and community, formal clothes and party are all a clear indication that the person’s status was changing. These rituals were meant to signal to their community the individuals new maturity and also to reinforce this psychologically as they took on more outer signs of independence such as a job and learning how to handle money.
Another feature of the failure to launch is that fewer and fewer people are getting married or are getting married later. For our parents’ generation, the transition to adulthood happened in one fell swoop: You got married and moved out of the house, often starting your own family shortly thereafter. No one is saying we need to return to early marriages, but clearly our rites of passage have not kept up with the times.
It is clear that we need as a society to determine what we mean by adulthood and then help the younger generation to make these transitions. This requires a clear sense of what being an adult entails, for example: the ability to think beyond one’s narrow self-interest, emotional maturity, financial independence, and participation in community. If we ourselves don’t know, it is impossible to expect the younger generation to embody these characteristics and they are left flailing. Life can become like a vast ocean without any markers to indicate where we are in the journey.
Lacking the ability to enforce these passages in the traditional manner, the Rotondo family was forced to take it all to the next level and use the courts in order to enforce independence on their son. This may seem absurd but is perhaps not really surprising. For a period of time the Italian government was considering legislation to move their legion of mammones out of the house. In Italy currently 66 percent of 18-34 year olds live at home. [iv] It is disturbing to think we have come to this, but without an alternative, it is likely we will see more cases where parents take extreme measures in order to launch their adult children.
[ii] Marie-Louise Von Franz, "The Problem of the Puer Aeternus", Toronto: Inner City Books, 2000, 7.
[iii] Arnold von Gennep, "The Rites of Passage", Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960, first published in 1909. 3.