Managing the Transition to Adulthood

You might not think about it now, but that child that you tuck in each night will at some point reach adulthood, or at least some semblance of it given the present economic circumstances.  Just as we should never have gotten into Iraq without some serious consideration about the endgame, parents should begin to consider their own endgame with the kids, i.e. phasing out their own responsibilities and passing them along to the nascent adults.  It’s a question that my wife are only now starting to consider with the Eldest of our three children, who is now entering her senior year in college and is legally able to drink.  How should the parents phase out their present responsibilities?

It’s not like it used to be where the kids left home after graduation – high school or college – and got a job that permitted them to become financially independent adults.  The jobs environment of the decades through the 1990s is no longer operative as the one-person-full-time-with-benefits job model has been replaced with the multiple-part-time-no-benefits job model; what some have begun referring to as the gig economy.  This move towards a newer, more uncertain way to make a living exacerbates what has become a debate on when adulthood actually begins.  The consumption model of the economy is predicated upon the formation of households to sell all of the wonderful stuff that makes a house a well-furnished house (not a home, just a well-furnished house unless you put in the effort and time) and when the young people cannot afford or are unwilling to make those decisions – moving out, marriage, parenthood – then the result is a slowdown in the economic driver as those milestones are, at best, delayed.  Toss in the albatross necklace of student debt and there’s a true impediment to economic growth.  The result is that there a fair number of middle-aged parents who are doing what they can to help their nascent adult offspring; the question that you should consider while you still have time is to what extent you wish to go?

When I survey the panoply of Opies that I’ve come to know through the older two kids, Eldest and Middle, there’s a massive disparity between what different parents will do for the kids.  At the one end of the spectrum are the sets of parents who actually expect the kids to help with paying the multiple household bills that come in, including mortgage and utilities.  The thought process seems to be congratulations, you’re now an adult and despite only having a part-time job, we expect you to chip in as a full-fledged adult.  The fact that Junior might only be a high school graduate or have outstanding student debt overhanging him is irrelevant to the situation.  The kid – adult? – is expected to contribute even if it means that he’s further handicapped and prohibited from getting out on his own because of this requirement.  While it is unscientific, my observation seems to be that these cases are predominantly amongst parents who are best described as working class or blue collar and could likely be under financial stress as well.  In one particular case, the young adult has been told for years that once he reached the age of 18, he’d be responsible for his own food, clothing, transportation and would have to pay rent as well. 

The other end of the spectrum are those who not only stand responsible for educating the kids, but are also willing to provide financial cover for as long as legally practicable.  I know of multiple sets of parents who are keeping the kids on their employer-provided health insurance even after they’re graduated from college.  One close friend even researched the regulations and found that her chemical engineer son could stay on her insurance until the age of 25, even if he was well-employed with a plan that he could purchase through his own employer.  Since this young man has graduated from college and graduate school with a considerable amount of student debt – he once commented I’m in so much debt that I could start a government – every little bit that he can throw at the debt to work it down is worthwhile and their family understanding is that cover will be provided so long as the money goes to pay off the debt.  It’s ditto for the auto insurance and the caveat is that he and his siblings will stay on the auto policy until they can truly take on their own or they screw up and cause the premium to rise.  This also brings up the other aspect which is that of responsibility; if the parents think that the kid is responsible enough to appreciate the privilege that’s being afforded by the parents and is actually appreciative of it.  If the kid is technically an adult but the privilege afforded actually prevents him from learning by shielding from poor consequences, then nobody would think poorly of any parent that threw in the financial towel and said to hell with it.

So think about it and start to determine where you are.  It’s a multi-dimensional question with parameters of age – kid and parent – as well as breadth – just financial or extending to other areas – and personal philosophy.  But understand that it’s a question worthy of consideration as the present economic climate continues to warp and torque what was once conventional wisdom and practice about life and adulthood.

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