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Fighting the Failure to Launch in Young Adults

You raised him to leave, but he’s still there. What to do about the young man on the sofa

an illustration of parents sitting on the couch looking down at their son who is hiding inside the couch

Paul Blow

En español

Ever wanted to evict your own son? One New York state couple did just that a few years ago, so fed up were they with their jobless 30-year-old offspring. The Rotondo family’s failure-to-launch saga made international headlines, but a quieter version is unfurling all around us as record numbers of young men skip college and work to hang out — indefinitely — at Mom and Dad’s.

“Home was always meant to be a launchpad,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford University dean and author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. “But it sometimes has the softness of a couch.”

An estimated 60 percent of men ages 18 to 24 lived at home in March 2020, as did 22 percent of those ages 25 to 34, according to the “Current Population Survey.” That’s the highest proportion reported for the 25-to-34 age group in the past 60 years, and it’s significantly higher than for women in the same range. About 6.8 million men were in college last spring, compared with 10 million women, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found. And guys 25 to 30 were less likely to have a job or to be looking for one than those of the previous generation, according to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Finding their way can be harder for boys, says clinical psychologist Meg Jay, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now. A young woman might prioritize work, marriage or parenthood, and she has friends to talk to about it, Jay says. “Many men, however, feel like their lives cannot start until they find a way to get their footing in the workplace, and many don’t know how to begin or where to turn for help.” High rent, college debt, paralyzing societal (and parental) expectations and COVID’s disruptions all contribute, mental health experts say.

An industry of pricey life coaches and treatment programs has sprung up, promising to fix “failure-to-launch syndrome.” But your kid may not need all that, says Mark McConville, a clinical psychologist in Beachwood, Ohio, and author of Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up … and What to Do About It. “If you’ve got a kid at home who is motivated, looking for a job, full of active energy, just support them,” he says. “It’s the kid who’s had the wind knocked out of his sails and plays at passivity who has parents climbing the walls and feeling helpless.” If that sounds familiar, try these strategies.

Sit them down

Schedule a meeting in the most formal room of your house, McConville recommends. “Close the door, and show this isn’t business as usual.” Make it clear that to continue living with you, your stuck kid has to do something constructive — get a job, go to school — as well as contribute to the household. “It’s perfectly fine for parents to ask hard questions like, ‘How do you see your life a year from now, three to five years from now?’ ” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, senior research scholar at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. “A 19-year-old struggling with the question ‘What do I want to do?’ is normal.” A stuck 29-year-old, on the other hand, may be trapped in unrealistic expectations of waltzing into a well-paid dream job. “At some point you have to go to work, be financially self-sufficient and enjoy your job as best you can,” Arnett says.

Establish new rules

Set expectations for helping around the house. “Anytime an emerging adult is living at home, it’s important that they contribute to the household just like any other adult,” Arnett says. Chores like taking out the trash, serious cleaning, household repairs, responsibility for pets, and shopping and cooking are all possibilities. “Show your adult kids that you have confidence in them,” Jay says. “Why wouldn’t he or she be capable of finding work, showing up every day, pitching in around the house? Millions of 20-somethings are doing it. Don’t send the message to your child that you think they cannot be one of them."

Students Enrolled in College

Men
Spring 2011: 8.4 million
Spring 2021: 6.8 million

Women
Spring 2011: 11.2 million
Spring 2021: 10 million

Phase in finances

Set near-future deadlines for your stuck kid to pay his own phone bill, car expenses, health insurance and share of the internet, McConville suggests. “A kid can refuse to make dinner, but if his phone stops working, he has to find a way to make an income,” he says. Think twice about charging rent, though, Arnett says. “If your son is working in a minimum-wage job, it’s reasonable to ask for rent, but he may not be able to pay for classes at community college or save up for a deposit on an apartment.”

Park your helicopter

Stop fixing, rescuing and controlling. Your kid can make his own appointments, check job openings and schedule interviews. “When we are pushing from behind and dragging from the front, a child becomes passive in their own life,” Lyth​cott-Haims says. “They don’t intrinsically feel that their life is their own.” Instead, encourage them the way an aunt or uncle might.

Do less than half

Let your kid do most of the work of solving his issues. “If you’re cutting out job ads and he’s not following through, or signing him up for school or figuring out how to approach the boss for extra hours, you’re doing more than 49 percent,” McConville says. Offer to help, but let them be in charge.

Rethink your expectations

You hoped for a doctor or lawyer, but he’s not interested in more schooling. Discover what excites him and support that, McConville says. “Becoming your true self is the gold standard of adult life.”

Be proactive about mental health

Depression and anxiety can impede an emerging young adult’s progress — and rates of both disorders are up, especially among 18- to 29-year-olds. Talk with your child about how they’re feeling and ask if they want counseling, Lythcott-Haims recommends. “You don’t tell a kid who’s in a serious depression, ‘You need to get a job in a month,’ ” she says. But identifying and treating mental health problems make any other problem much easier to solve. 

Sari Harrar is a contributing editor to AARP The Magazine who has written on health, science and consumer affairs for over 20 years.

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