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Dear Answer Queen:
Six months ago, our son graduated college and moved back home. This made sense at the time—we live in a city, and he couldn’t afford to pay rent until he had a job. He spent a month “decompressing” on the couch, then sent out a bunch of resumes, none of which led to employment.
After that, he seemed to give up. He spends most of his time eating, napping, or in his room “doing research” (or so he tells me as he sits on his laptop), occasionally getting out to the gym or dinner with a friend. But he seems no closer to getting a job—or to leaving home—than he was months ago.
He seems no closer to getting a job—or to leaving home—than he was months ago.
Lately we’ve started charging him rent, thinking that would light a candle under his butt. Instead, he pays us with his savings, which are now shrinking fast. When I mention his job search—offering help, or asking how it’s going—he either gets angry that I’m trying to “micromanage” his life or tells me he’s trying as hard as he can and doesn’t want to discuss it until there’s something to say.
He’s a sweet, laid-back kid, and I hate fighting with him. I also can’t bear the thought of kicking him out—especially because, like so many Millennials, he has some real anxieties that might be making this whole thing even harder. Plus, I don’t know where he’d live if we threw him out, even more so if his savings are gone. But I’m not sure it’s good to go on this way—for him or for us. Help.
-Empty Nest Wannabe
Almost every day, it seems, I hear from empty nesters about another grown child like this—the “boomerang kid,” a college grad (or drop-out) who is suffering from “failure to launch;” someone who ricochets back home to sleep till all hours, smoke weed in the bathroom, and play Dark Souls 3 on the laptop all day. And oh, how easy it is for us all to blame “the Millennials,” the generation that’s been called lazy, entitled, selfish, shallow, coddled, and narcissistic.
I don’t mean to say that you’re blaming them; in fact, you sound like a loving, generous parent. But your letter sets me off on this topic, because while it’s already a tired cliché to trash whoever’s currently coming of age (remember the “slacker” Gen X-ers?), never has a group seemed more maligned than the current young adults—and as the (no-doubt biased) mother of two of them myself, I find this wrong and unfair.
Maybe the hardest thing about a situation like yours—and I know, having been in a similar place once myself—is the worry that he won’t be okay.
Yes, they’re doing things differently than we did, but they’re also faced with a completely different world. College is absurdly expensive now, so many of them have staggering debt before they’re even halfway through—or a fair amount of guilt if they don’t. A career path, if such a thing even still exists, is no longer a straight, clear road from high school or college graduation through retirement, featuring job security and benefits. Rents in cities—where, increasingly, the jobs are—can be exorbitant.
And for better and worse, these kids grew up with helicopter parents, we who hovered and lawn-mowered them from nursery school on, never letting them fail and “learn from their mistakes” (blah blah blah). Add to that their nonstop screens and social media—not to mention a planet that’s melting, burning, and flooding before their very eyes (I know, but how do I really feel?!)—and you can see why any kid who’s anxious or sensitive, or even conflicted or thoughtful about what to do with his life, might not waltz out of college into the perfect job and stay there for the next sixty years.
You should be catching up on all the books and movies you missed for the past 21 years—not facing his lo mein cartons and pajama-clad body everyday.
Which brings us back to you and your beautiful-but-idling boy. Maybe the hardest thing about a situation like yours—and I know, having been in a similar place once myself—is the worry that he won’t be okay.
But the second hardest thing, I think, is annoyance. You’ve done your job; now your kid, having been dutifully piloted through high school and college, should be off pulling paychecks and Venmo-ing his landlord while you relax with a case of Pinot and all the books and movies you missed for the past 21 years—not facing his lo mein cartons and pajama-clad body (laptop open, earphones plastered to head) on a daily basis. It’s not fair. Nor easy on a middle-aged marriage.
Still: I think it’s okay to for him to be home for a little before starting his career, as long as he’s a) following your household rules, and b) moving in the general direction of departure. But you need to sit down as a family and clarify those rules. Mine would be: rise by 9; dress and finish breakfast by 10; exercise outside an hour or more a day; help with cleaning and chores; and be at least vaguely pleasant at home.
You’ve already got him paying rent, which seems right by a few months after graduation; maybe offer a discount for months you see job-hunting progress. I would also insist on therapy; your boomerang kid can’t feel good at this point, unemployed and living with Mumsy, which probably contributes to both his anxiety and his lack of motivation.
Since he clearly needs help making specific goals each week and then accomplishing them, decide whether his helper will be you and his Dad, or an actual career counselor (again, nice for you because someone else cracks the whip).
I don’t envy you, Wannabe, but making rules, and enforcing them, is part of what you signed up for when you brought the little pisser into the world.
He also needs to find some temporary work, either paid or volunteer, while he looks for his Real Job; even walking dogs or stocking shelves at Walmart will force him to get out, meet people, maybe get a new perspective on the world. Throw him a bone, if you can; ask employed friends if they need an intern, or list local hospital/food pantry/homeless shelters he could contact about pitching in.
I don’t envy you, Wannabe, but making rules, and enforcing them, is part of what you signed up for when you brought the little pisser into the world—just as is cutting him some slack to turn into the person he is (as opposed to simply an extension of yourself).
Put another way: your job, as usual, is to find that space between supportive and firm, between micromanaging and giving him space to grow up and fuck up and figure out his life…all while making sure he knows you still love him. Good luck.