In the film "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," Jeff (Jason Segal), a 30 year-old still living at home, is having a phone conversation with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). It goes like this:
Mother: "Get off that couch or you're going to have to find some place else to live."
Son: "I'm kind of in the middle of something right now, mom."
Mother: "Jeff, what do you do in that basement? You're not cleaning it."
Son: "You really wanna know? You didn't like it the last time we had this conversation."
What he was doing in that basement was smoking pot, watching TV and trying to figure out to do with the rest of his life. The last time they had that conversation he was probably in high school doing the same thing, and his mother never imagined having the same conversation.
But there she was, like millions of other American parents, trying to figure out when (or if) her son would finally become an adult and leave the nest for good. In the film, which perfectly articulates one of parents' biggest fears, Jeff is a man-child. Sally Koslow, in her new book Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, has coined a new term for those young, educated, capable adults still living at home: she calls them "adulescents."
"Actually, one of my sons cooked up that word," she said, "because I really don't like the term 'emerging adult.' I see some kids who don't seem to be 'emerging' at all." In Slouching Toward Adulthood, Koslow chronicles the year she spent trying to better understand what's going on with Americans between the ages of 22 and 35 who find themselves back at home, largely supported by their parents.
Part humorous memoir and part hard-core investigation, Koslow paints a portrait of a socio-political and cultural crisis in-the-making, with statistics that underscore her findings: According to the US Census Bureau, by 2010 5.9 million people aged 20 to 35 were living back at home. Similarly, according to a 2011 survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, approximately 59 percent of parents provide financial assistance to children aged 18 to 39 who were not students.
Koslow is the author of numerous essays and three books, was editor-in-chief at McCalls as well as an editor at Mademoiselle and Women's Day. She's also the mother of kids who've finally moved out of the house. We recently caught up with her to find out why millions of young Americans are slouching toward adulthood.
What's going on? Are boomerang kids the product of helicopter parenting? Are boomer parents enablers?
I think a combination of factors have coalesced. One is the economy. It has nothing to do with kids. People who have graduated from college have really drawn the short straw. It's become a lot harder to get jobs.
Then there's the way parents have parented. Each generation seems to be more invested than the one before in trying to raise their children the "right way." And the way people have defined the "right way" seems to be to treat their kids more like hot house plants. Each child is a perfect specimen. Also, kids used to apply to three colleges or five colleges; now it might be 15 colleges. Affluent people might spend vacations for two years looking at colleges. Everything just seems to be amplified. Part of it is related to the feeling that their child is a perfect snowflake; that their child deserves the very best. Much of it comes from really good motives.
Is 28 really the new 19?
I quoted that. Someone else said that, but it feels really on the mark to me. In the same way that being 50 is the new 35.
What were your biggest challenges with your own sons?
The biggest challenge was to butt out. And sometimes my kids helpd me with that by putting up boundaries. I would have loved nothing more than to help my children in the areas where I feel really competent. I'm a woman who's hired a lot of people over the years, so I would have loved to have completely supervised my children's job searches. But one of my children decided to go into film and moved to California. If you grew up in L.A., you probably know a lot of people in the industry, but that's not the way it works in New York City. So he just cut me off at the pass. The other one started out by moving to San Francisco. He's 35 now, so if you dial back to when he was 22 and graduated from college when lots of people were moving to San Francisco. So again, I really couldn't be that helpful.
But when the older one returned to New York City at age 25, we had kind of a delayed version of what goes on in a lot of homes, where a young person is living at home after they've been living independently for a while. And of course it's only natural to revert to the patterns of interaction that you knew when your child was home, which usually was high school.
So then it gets really tricky, because they're not 15, 16 or 17; they're 25 or 26 and sometimes live very nicely off of unemployment. We made our son get health insurance because that was really important to us, but he was going out every night with all of his friends, sleeping late and making no particular noises as far as we could tell about looking for a job. At a certain point we found out that he'd actually been offered a job but was thinking of not accepting it because it wasn't really what he wanted to do; it wasn't exactly perfect. He could have continued at home. Life was good, there was always a full refrigerator, a washing machine in the next room, and he wasn't paying any rent. But we strongly urged him to take that job -- and he did. And then he never lived at home again.
How did your marriage fare in all that?
I can't say that having my son back had an effect either way on my marriage. My husband and I were on the same page and we would roll our eyes together. It wasn't as if one of us was more coddling than the other. We basically completely agreed on how we wanted things to shape up so.
Where do you weigh in on the tiger mom phenomenon with respect to this phenomenon?
I don't want to speak for Amy Chua, though I do have the sense that she feels her book was misinterpreted a bit. But I will say that I think today's parents are so ambitious on behalf of their kids that they don't expect them to do practical things. They really want their kids to concentrate so much on the line items that will help get them into college. They don't expect them to even to make their beds or to help around the house or to babysit younger siblings, run errands, or help put the storm windows up. I've talked to people from almost every state and I think people really short-change their kids in terms of learning practical tasks. They just don't expect enough. So I don't want to speak for Amy Chua, but I do think that there is a tendency for American parents to be lax out of misplaced kindness or a feeling that their children are entitled to concentrate only on school work and extra curricular activities and having fun.
Is the idea of latch-key kids ancient history?
My younger son effectively was a latch key kid because by the time I was editor-in-chief of a magazine, he had a very long school day and activities, so some days after school no one was home. I do feel that I was probably judged harshly by some of my peers who would employ household help even when no one was home. But this is the child who has been really successful in the film industry, so I feel maybe it was a good thing and taught him to be resourceful.
It probably taught him to be resilient and self-reliant.
I do think so. And I think American parents undervalue those qualities. We care so much about grade point average and whether someone is on a traveling athletic team or how they perform in the school orchestra and so on. These feelings of integrity and resilience and self-assurance and independence are valued less.