The Terrible 22s
Are today's young adults really helpless narcissists? A boomer and a millennial weigh in
A Boomer's View
Sorry, Kids: We Made You This Way
It's become a weary trope: Millennials, we are often told, are a pampered cohort sulking in their childhood bedrooms or aimlessly couch surfing in search of personal fulfillment. It's easy to get all judgy about the terrible 22s. But that's just part of the problem. What's truly terrible isn't our kids — it's us, the hyper-attentive parents who made them. Consider the oft-quoted profundity that parents should give children both roots and wings. We seem to have neglected part two.
"Too many of us do some combination of over-directing, overprotecting or overinvolving ourselves in our kids' lives," says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, in her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. "Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own."
Allow me, please, a moment of time travel. Like half the 21-year-olds I knew, I once hopscotched through Europe after college without my parents knowing my itinerary. (What itinerary?) We had not one transatlantic phone call the entire summer and stayed in touch via postcards and aerograms. When I became a mother myself, I asked my mom if she'd been worried about unsophisticated, North Dakota me cavorting continents away. Her answer was no because she considered me to be reasonably mature. "You were, after all, 21."
When I returned, I settled 1,500 miles away from my parents, without the benefit of their help to find an apartment and job. From my mom, I received care packages of chocolate chip cookies; from my dad, $10 checks until my weekly salary was raised to $100 and he cut me off. Such quaintness is so boomer commonplace, I mention it only for context as I wonder how a generation of rugged individualists aching for adulthood became parents who can't let go.
Here's the grinding truth: In ways our Greatest Generation parents never did, we lust for our children's continuing attention. We love to hang out with our offspring and savor every intimate detail of their lives. As a result, we have all but eliminated the generation gap. "Today's youths are more likely to find greater agreement with their parents than did their counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s," write Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray in Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone. "Young adults today see their parents, and especially their mothers, as a source of not only advice and counsel, but also companionship and comfort."
Modern technology makes it easy to provide all of the above. For many parents, it's standard operating procedure to not only engage their kids in constant text conversation but monitor their every wink via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a variety of location-tracking apps, allowing these parents to swoop in with roadside assistance at a moment's notice. My friend Claire was recently alarmed when her son in Brooklyn Instagrammed a picture of his car with a freshly bent bumper. "I immediately texted him with advice on what to do and reminded him that I didn't think the neighborhood where he lives is safe," she says. "Am I guilty of overparenting by following his social media feeds? I don't think so."
Parents are just as shameless about policing their progeny's love lives.
"For two years, my daughter's been dating a guy with no interest in making a commitment," says a Michigan mom of a 29-year-old. "My husband and I think our daughter is wasting precious time. We are extremely close and speak multiple times a day. She's always been glad to hear what we have to say. But now that our concerns are about her relationship, our daughter has told us to butt out. In recent conversations, she's actually hung up on us." And yet, this mother plans to persist in her campaign.
Others intervene with online services such as TheJMom.com, which promises to "give the power of matchmaking through the Internet to parents." Here, Jewish mothers like "Susan, a lawyer from Palo Alto," can post a profile of daughter "Shira, 27, a great catch," and let future beaux know "she volunteers with seniors" and "enjoys Ethiopian food." Oy.
Parents often expect to be similarly involved in their children's professional lives. "I hear about parents asking to participate in job interviews, calling potential employers to ask about promotion schedules, vetting contracts, weighing in or making counteroffers during salary negotiations, even offering their own assessments on performance reviews," says Sally Helgesen, leadership consultant and coauthor, with Julie Johnson, of The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work. "The message companies get is that this hire is not independent enough to assume professional responsibilities."
You get the picture. Parenting young adults can seem more complicated than the toddler years because the challenges of this life phase — committing to a career or a relationship — have big stakes. But this has always been the case, even when parents were more hands-off. What happened?
Overparenting has its roots in a rush of events and cultural responses more than 35 years ago. In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared while walking to his school bus, instilling a terror of kidnapping in a nation of parents. The early 1980s also saw the release of a scathing presidential report on education, "A Nation at Risk," which warned Americans that their kids were not the globe's academic crème de la crème.
Meanwhile, the self-esteem movement encouraged educators to feed their charges feel-good affirmations, and the term "helicopter parent" was born. Little wonder that the American College Health Association says that nearly 1 in 6 students have been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety in the past year. "This generation is less able to perform in a tough world because of their high expectations about how easy things will be," says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. "We've put our children on a pedestal and given lots of praise without having rules. After such a childhood, reality hits like a smack in the face."
Some parents never bothered to teach everyday life skills and assumed the role of concierge/personal assistant. We did this on purpose, says Mary Dell Harrington of the parenting blog Grown and Flown: "Taking care of practical things — making doctors' appointments or buying gifts for family members—becomes a sneaky way for parents to maintain codependence." Our logic: If our kids manage well without us, that must mean we are old.
Further complicating the picture is the developmental stage known as differentiation of self, the psychological process of deciding who we are apart from our families. "Some young people do this readily," says Jane Quam Warren, a clinical psychologist in Omaha, Nebraska. "Ironically, children who are raised in intact, well-functioning families may have the most difficulty because staying safe within that family is very appealing. Why, psychologically and literally, move away?"
Especially when Mom and Dad clearly crave your company. "What many parents really want is an adult child who will do just as they wish," says Manhattan therapist Jerry Agate. "Letting go means seeing children as separate and different from us. There is a difficult balance between being free of parenting responsibilities in a positive way and feeling unwanted by our children."
So here we remain, locked in orbit around offspring we can't bring ourselves to free. Maybe together we can start talking about the best way to reach a goal we all share: raising and ultimately letting go of adults who can face the problems of the 21st century — and figure out how to nurture the next generation.
— Sally Koslow
A Millennial's View
Hey, Mom and Dad: You Have No Idea
Consider the tale of terror that might have sprung from Mary Shelley's quill if she had written her novel in the 21st century: Dr. Frankenstein would assemble his Creature with mismatched legs taut from after-school sports; he would dress it in a hoodie from his alma mater, fill out the Creature's job applications and field tricky questions on its behalf in job interviews. Like Shelley's original doctor, he would be wracked with guilt at having inflicted this monster on the world. But instead of destroying it, he would dedicate his life to facilitating its success in all endeavors.
This is how many boomer parents seem to treat their adult offspring — with suffocating attention, mixed with horror and shame. As a group, boomer parents seem to be consumed by the notion that, despite their heroic efforts, their children have turned out to be feckless baby-people, ill prepared for everyday life. Moreover, the boomers are obsessed with what they consider to be their starring role in the Greek drama of my generation's failure.
Take, for instance, the defining apocryphal millennial trend story: Kids are bringing their parents to job interviews. This urban legend of emerging-adult ineptitude appears to have been born in a September 2013 Wall Street Journal article, "Should You Bring Mom and Dad to the Office?" The story held a shocking statistic: A 2012 study of college graduates by human resources company Adecco found that 8 percent of respondents "had a parent accompany them to a job interview," and 3 percent "had the parent sit in."
Jesse Singal had never heard of his peers doing this. "Anyone who has been to a job interview knows that it would be really, really weird to take your parent," says the 32-year-old journalist, who investigated Adecco's report for the Columbia Journalism Review. What Singal found when he looked closely was a far cry from the Mommy & Me narrative perpetuated in sound bites. For one thing, media outlets took liberties with the vague definition of "accompanying." Since accompanying parents and parents who sat in on interviews were counted separately in the survey, Singal concluded that the former likely refers to a parent "giving a kid a ride or maybe sitting outside the interview for support. So the truth is something like 'Fewer than 1 in 10 millennials are getting a ride to their interviews from their parents.' This isn't that headline-worthy, especially given how many millennials don't have cars and are living at home."
Oh, yeah: That's the other narrative of millennial helplessness — we're all broke. While the raw economic data can make it sound as if we are all suffering under Cormac McCarthy–esque post-apocalyptic conditions, the full story is more complicated. As Jordan Weissmann noted in Slate last August, "young adult incomes are basically right inside the range they've been in past decades." A man age 25 to 34 earned 18.5 percent less in 2013 than his counterpart did in 1980, after inflation, but a young woman earned 40.5 percent more than her 1980 counterpart. In general, the divide between the young haves and have-nots parallels rising inequality in society at large. The Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the lowest three-fifths of the young adult population were in the direst straits: In 1989, the average net worth of those ages 18 to 34 was $3,300; in 2013, the group averaged $7,700 — in net debt. Surging student loans accounted for more than two-thirds of that shift.
Are millennials really more broke than our parents were? "It depends on which millennials and boomers we are talking about," says Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center. Young adults with college degrees "are, on average, better off than college-educated boomers were when they were young," while those with no education beyond high school "are markedly worse off" than boomer counterparts.
Perhaps as penance for creating the economic circumstances that doom their offspring, boomer parents have crafted a new role for themselves: part protector, part best friend; more wise-but-cool camp counselor than reserved paterfamilias. They're buddies with us on Instagram! They track our mood swings on Twitter! They post the monkey-covering-his-eyes-with-his-hands emoji when we tell an embarrassing story on Facebook! But the only reason boomers and Gen Xers weren't Facebook friends with their parents in college was because Facebook hadn't been invented yet (by a millennial). Children and parents "connecting" on social media isn't evidence of a unique emotional bond between generations; it's just a sign of the pervasiveness of social media.
And by the way, boomers — you're not getting a window into your daughter's secret world by following her on Instagram. For one thing, she understands privacy settings, and you don't. If you haven't been filtered out of seeing certain Facebook posts (or quietly unfriended), says Internet security expert Marian Merritt, you might be viewing a "dummy" account made just for your prying eyes. (Merritt's tip: "If you don't see their school friends [in the account's friend list], you know it's the vanilla parent account.")
It's also likely that by now your digital-native offspring have learned to avoid putting incriminating information online. Jeffrey Child, an associate professor of communications at Kent State University in Ohio, has researched millennial social media habits and says that most young adults now take a proactive approach to privacy — keeping accounts free of questionable content in the first place (and scrubbing their profiles when such content pops up from an outside source, like a friend). "This occurs among millennials because there has been so much attention placed on people who have gotten fired or into trouble for illegal and/or inappropriate posts," says Child. In other words, your kids' online lives are pre-sanitized. We know you can see us.
Could this digital shrewdness bleed into other areas, as well? Consider the number of millennials living at home with their parents. Despite alarmist headlines, the numbers are not unprecedented. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, says Fry, the percentage of young adults not heading their own households "steeply increased" from a late 20th-century plateau. Jump back to 1940, however, and young Americans reeling from the Great Depression were even less likely to launch. Does that make the Greatest Generation even bigger babies? Of course not — they were just faced with similarly demanding financial challenges. Put another way, Brandon and Ashley aren't living in their old bedrooms for the free laundry and Xbox; it's practical frugality. Rents have risen faster than our incomes.
Most media bugaboos of millennial misbehavior are similarly empty, Singal says. "When I read about how millennial workers can't be bothered to put down the phone and stop texting, I always have the same response: Fire them! The idea that employers are helpless to discipline these lazy, social media–obsessed millennials and must instead adapt to our idiotically self-absorbed lifestyles just flies in the face of everything everyone knows about this economy."
In other words, millennials are young. Not as young as Generation Z, whose happiness and well-being will soon consume our thoughts, but pretty far down there. We have decades to develop missing life skills, build and lose fortunes, and screw up our own kids' lives. On balance, we probably aren't that different from you. We just have more neurotic parents.
— Caity Weaver
Sally Koslow is the author of five books, including Slouching Toward Adulthood; Caity Weaver is a writer and editor at GQ.