Parents as Safety Nets and Scaffolds for Young Adults

Contrary to popular anxieties about slacker young adults who refuse to grow up, or indulgent helicopter parents who stifle their adult children’s development by continuing to support them, my colleagues and I have found that parental assistance in early adulthood aims to promote progress toward autonomy and self-reliance.

The fact that young people depend upon their parents well beyond the age when most people from earlier generations had already started families and had dependable jobs has triggered a great deal of public anxiety over whether these trends signal young adult immaturity and stunted development. Yet today, the road to adulthood is much longer and more arduous than it was thirty years ago. In the mid-twentieth century, young adults could reasonably expect to find work that would pay enough to provide for themselves and their families shortly after finishing their education, often times directly after high school. Today this is no longer the case. Stable, well-paying jobs for high school graduates are rare, and young adults often require extended education or credentials in order to land a job that will provide an income and benefits to provide a decent life, let alone that will provide for partners and children. As young adults take longer to establish careers and set up independent households in more challenging and unstable job and housing markets, parents have stepped in to help support.

But are parents enabling their young adult children to delay growing up by supporting irresponsible lifestyles, such as passing days playing video games in the basement or evenings out at expensive trendy restaurants and bars that they really can’t afford? Or are parents targeting their help to support young people as they build skills, credentials and experience that will make them more marketable in the long run, even if it mean foregoing salaries in the short term.  Or are parents helping out in times of crisis, so their kids don’t fall too far behind when they encounter a major bump in the road?

Together with colleagues Minzee Kim, Mayumi Uno, Jeylan Mortimer, and Kirsten O’Brien, we looked at survey data from 712 adults ages 24 to 32 from the Youth Development Study to understand what circumstances led to parental housing or financial support. Although almost half of the respondents received financial or housing help in their mid-20s, only 10% to 15% received such assistance in their early 30s. The likelihood of receiving money for living expenses declined by 15% each year and living with parents declined 18% each year, suggesting that these adult dependents do eventually become independent.

Beyond the effects of age, we also found that young people were more likely to receive help from their parents if they were students or had encountered recent difficulties such as a job loss, a serious illness, or a divorce. Parental aid serves as ‘scaffolding’ to help young people who are working towards financial self-sufficiency and as ‘safety nets’ for those who have experienced a significant crisis or set back. In an economy that requires advanced education for good jobs, parents are more likely to aid their children when they are students. As the labor market offers fewer opportunities for stable, full-time, well-paid work for the young, parents often fill in temporarily when needed. The current economic conditions and labor market may warrant thiskind of help more than before and for longer into young adulthood

We also found that parental support tapers as young adult children take on adult roles such as earning higher incomes or forming families, regardless of their age. Forming intimate partnerships, in the forms of marriage and cohabitation, appears to signal to parents that their children have moved into adulthood and should now be on their own. Although marriage, partnership, and childbearing are largely understood as ‘choices’ today and not viewed as essential for achieving adult status, it does appear that parents and/or adult children themselves interpret forming a family of one’s own as an indicator that adult self-sufficiency is appropriate.

The findings provide evidence that families are adaptive and responsive to family members needs and troubles, and that parents are more likely to support adult children, even those who are older, to help them get through hard times and to help them attain independence. The instability and rapid pace of change during early adulthood may make young adulthood a particularly vulnerable period necessitating a safety net more frequently than other stages in life.

The full article can be read in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

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One Comment on “Parents as Safety Nets and Scaffolds for Young Adults”

  1. Cameron Says:

    Really interesting. I think back to my own early 20s and 1) I had a unionized job as a hotel desk clerk that paid a living wage and had excellent benefits, 2) that job was an entry-level position that allowed for promotion to management without a college degree, and 3) my parents would NEVER have taken me back! But the point is that with a living wage and good entry-level jobs, they didn’t have to.


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