Whether two people are married or cohabiting, whether they stay together or form new relationships, raising kids is an intense journey. Yet even as parents struggle through the ups and downs of the child-rearing years, they often dread the inevitable separation as their kids come of age. Or is it inevitable?
Partly because of the lasting bite of the Great Recession and the difficulty of getting good jobs, young adults are staying at home longer than they used to. Later marriages and childbearing are also likely contributing to this trend. And, again, those without college degrees are finding it harder to launch. Forty percent of young adults aged 18 to 31 with a high school degree or less were living with their parents in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Those with just some college education were even more likely to be at home—43 percent. The overall figure for the age group, 36 percent, was the highest in four decades. For those who do go to college, student debt also can be a deterrent to moving up and out. Presenters at the 2014 Population Association of America conference cited the country’s more than $1 trillion in student loans, second only to mortgages among consumer debt, as a barrier to young people fledging and eventually buying houses of their own.
Anne Briggs, 29, has experienced this firsthand. Briggs got her bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University in 2013 with the plan of working as a high school social studies teacher. But with such jobs scarce and $30,000 in student loans, Briggs is living at home, trying for a long-term temp or substitute teaching job, and working in restaurants while she waits for something better to come along. The worst? When she applies for a waitress job and finds herself competing against young people she used to student teach at Ann Arbor’s Huron High School. “It’s really awkward when I’m applying for jobs and former students are already working there,” Briggs says. “And the worst part is I’m not even getting hired—they want high school kids, not college grads.” All of this contributes to the fact that the amount of financial assistance parents provide to children aged 19-28 has increased substantially in the last 30 years, according to a team of ISR researchers. And the latest data from ISR’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) found that almost 40 percent of parents with kids 18 years or older are helping financially with education expenses. That aid can continue beyond graduation. New questions on the PSID survey, which follows families over time, are intended to track exactly what kinds of help parents are offering their kids, and how their children are reciprocating. And then there are the helicopter parents, the mothers and fathers who involve themselves in every aspect of their children’s lives, even after their grown kids move away. A study by ISR researcher Kira Birditt and colleagues found that 20 percent of adult children report receiving intense parental support—defined as getting “several types of support several times a week”—in the form of advice, money, or a shoulder to cry on. Birditt, a member of ISR’s Life Course Development Program directed by Toni Antonucci, looked at how adult kids and parents judged that assistance, and how the intense support felt to each group. They expected that kids would think excessive support was good and normal, and that parents would find it onerous and worry about whether it meant their kids were somehow failing at life. The results were a bit more nuanced. Young adults overall felt it wasn’t quite right to be receiving so much help. But at the same time, it seemed to contribute to success and help them navigate the complexities of life. “It really shows that even though they might feel this isn’t normative, it might be good for their well-being,” Birditt says. “That was a nice finding, because a lot of the media hype has been saying that it’s bad for parents and children to give all this support.” As the researchers expected, parents also reported that the amount of aid they were providing was too much. And when it placed excessive financial or emotional demands on the older adults, it sometimes frayed the relationship. But there was a sort of silver lining: Some parents believed that their years of unflagging support might pay off towards the end of their lives. That’s when kids would have the chance to turn around and show their appreciation for all that help. Here again, though, families that have undergone fissures and change don’t always follow expected norms. ISR researcher Carey Sherman found that a woman who remarries later in life and whose husband develops dementia can’t expect much support from her husband’s children. Rather, children by a different woman seem to distance themselves and conclude that their father’s care isn’t their concern. “I was surprised at how little adult stepchildren were involved in the care of their fathers,” Sherman says.
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