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Young adults' help from parents doesn't mean they're slackers, U of M study finds

Parents who help out their young adult children from time to time by providing either financial support or by letting them move back home for a bit are not stopping those children from growing up.

Nor should those young people feel like losers or slackers.

In fact, such financial support from parents can actually help young adults with their journey to eventual autonomy and self-reliance.

It’s also quite common for parents — across all income brackets — to provide their post-college-age adult children with basic living expenses.

Those are some of the key findings from a new study led by University of Minnesota sociology professor Teresa Swartz. She and her colleagues analyzed data from annual surveys collected from some 700 participants in the federally funded Youth Development Study, who were randomly selected back in 1988 when they were ninth-graders in St. Paul’s public schools.

Specifically, the study, which will appear in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at data from surveys filled out by the study’s participants between 1997, when they were aged 23 or 24, and 2005, when they were 31 or 32.

Swartz recently spoke with me about the new study and about an earlier study for which she interviewed about 500 young Minnesota adults and their parents.

MinnPost: What interested you in doing this study?

Teresa Swartz: I was hearing a lot of stories in the media about slacker young people and how they’re just living in their parents’ basements. Yet, from the stories I was hearing from the young adults I was interviewing [for a Network on Transitions to Adulthood research project], it didn’t sound like that was what they were doing — that they were just living in their parents’ basement playing video games. They were trying to save their money. They were trying to get an education.

We have this image from the 1950s and 1960s of a young person finishing school, getting their first job, moving out of their parents’ home, getting married and having kids. That’s the assumed normative pattern. But that’s not necessarily how things always go, especially today when it’s difficult to find a job that pays a living wage and that could support a family right out of high school. Even for those who graduate from college, it can be a struggle to find a job that pays enough so you can have an apartment on your own, much less support a family. It takes longer than our idealized version of what happened in the mid-20th century.

MP: Have the relationships between parents and their adult children changed?

TS: I think the economy has really changed. It’s just taking longer for the majority of young adults to get on their own feet and be self-sufficient.

Part of that story might be — and this is what we hear a lot in the media — that [young people] have different expectations for living standards, that perhaps they grew up having their own room and so they don’t want to move in with five other roommates, or something like that. That may be part of the story, but it’s not the full story. Housing is more expensive today. It takes a greater percentage of a person’s income than it did in the past. Health care is more expensive today. Young people, especially in this recession, have higher unemployment rates and have harder times finding jobs that will pay enough for them to survive on.

MP: In this new study, you found that almost half the young adults received either financial support from their parents or permission to return home to save on expenses. Did that surprise you?

TS: I guess it didn’t surprise me. When I was interviewing young people in Minnesota [for the Network on Transitions to Adulthood project], this was the kind of thing I was hearing from them. They were telling us that there are circumstances in which this is perfectly fine [to accept parental financial aid], although they hadn’t let go of the idea that at some point they’re going to be independent adults. … In that sample, a large number of them lived at home. I actually had thought that wasn’t going to be the case because housing costs in Minnesota are more affordable than they are in other parts of the country.

Some of them, particularly children of immigrants, have a little bit of a different idea of what it means about being an adult. For them, being an adult means being interdependent with family, but being one of those who can help provide for others, including your parents. But most of the young adults from U.S.-born American families hadn’t given up on this idea of being self-sufficient. They just realized that, OK, I can use this temporary help right now from my parents so I can finish my education and then I can get that job. Or I can move home and save for a downpayment on a house while I’m not paying rent, and there is no shame in that. It’s actually being smart. Those were the kinds of stories I was hearing.

MP: You found that parental financial support decreased as the young people took on more adult roles, like marriage. That’s not too surprising, right?

TS: It’s not intuitively surprising, given what we know of the world, but it was a little bit of a different take from past research. Other research has shown that the fall in support over time is due just to age rather than to other types of life circumstances or taking on adult roles. We found it was both [age and circumstance]. If people had married, they were much less likely to receive financial help from their parents or housing support from their parents no matter what their age. I guess that’s not super surprising unless you come from communities where it’s more common to have inter-generational living.

MP: What was kind of surprising was that support came from families in all income brackets.

TS: Yes. I had anticipated that people from higher income groups would be more likely to receive support from their parents than people from lower income groups, and that’s what the research before had shown. But we measured whether they received any support or no support versus how much money they got. I think that’s part of the difference.

Also, we looked at money specifically [given] for basic needs. That might be the difference as well. Maybe kids who have parents with more resources, maybe their parents are able to buy them a new car or a downpayment on a house or incidentals that aren’t considered to be basic living expenses. My guess is that people from different income groups are receiving different amounts of money. It’s also what I heard in my interviews.

MP: The education levels of the parents did, however, make a difference. Why is that?

TS: One interpretation might be that parents with a higher education continue to support their kids because they have this expectation that their kids will achieve in terms of educational achievement and socioeconomic achievement. They’re trying to help their kids get there.

Other research has looked at this and found that parents from upper-middle-class and middle-class families kind of have a different orientation to their kids’ achievements. They’re really focused on this idea of their kids’ success — on what [sociologist] Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” They’re very invested and involved in assuring their kids success in many different ways. Like when their kids are younger they might sign them up for music lessons or extra math classes. They are always at the parent-teacher conferences, talking to the teachers about how their kids can improve, and things like that.

I think that maybe we see signs of that in this particular finding, that even [when their children are] in young adulthood, parents are still thinking of them as their project, and that how successful their kids are reflects on their own success as a parent. I’m not saying that one group loves their kids more than the other, or that they care more about their kids’ happiness or anything like that. But it does seem that upper-middle-class and middle-class parents who are more educated kind of have this idea of their kid as their own project, even into young adulthood, and they’re going to help them achieve particular goals that might have to do with academics and career success.

MP: The study also had some very interesting findings regarding the relationships between parents and their adult children, particularly the finding that close relationships with moms are more likely to predict parental financial support.

TS: Yeah. This is a little bit tricky. We couldn’t differentiate whether the young adult received help from their mom or their dad. [The survey] only mentioned help from parents. Perhaps parents who are very close to their kids might be more inclined to give to their kids, or kids who are closer to their parents might be more inclined to receive help from their parents. We found that was the case for moms. If young adults reported they were close to their moms they were more likely to receive both housing and financial help from their parents. But it was the opposite for dads, at least in terms of housing help. That’s kind of puzzling.

It may be that moms are more clued in to their kids needs if they’re closer to them. So maybe their kids talk to them more, and so they’re more aware of [their children’s needs.] Maybe that’s why they are providing them with more help. Or maybe kids who feel close to their moms are more likely to ask for help.

MP: You had fewer girls living at home if they were close to their moms.

TS: We had fewer girls living at home, period. That’s actually consistent with other findings.

MP: And the explanation?

TS: One might be that women are expected to do more household work than young men. Other studies have found that as well. They are expected to do more chores, more cooking, more cleaning, etc. So maybe it’s not as cushy a deal to live at home when you’re a young woman than it is when you’re a guy.

That might be one part of the explanation. But there’s another possible explanation. The recession has hit young men harder than it has young women, so perhaps it is that there are some gender differences in terms of early career building, although our study was concluded before the recession.

MP: I noticed that children from stepfamilies didn’t receive as much financial help from their parents.

TS: That’s true. Children who had stepparents were less likely to receive help. That may be because there are more ambiguous norms about giving to stepchildren than about giving to biological or adopted children. That might be part of the story. Or it may be that some fathers — or mothers — who lived away from their kids have less close relationships with them, and thus are less inclined to give. Or perhaps they’re just less connected with their kid and don’t know what their child’s needs are.

MP: Another interesting finding was that young adults were getting help if they were temporarily derailed by an event like getting divorced or losing a job but not if they had an ongoing issue, like long-term unemployment.

TS: I think that really speaks to this issue as to whether this is a story about slackers — about young people not really taking on the responsibilities of adulthood seriously — or a story about parents helping their kids get to self-sufficiency. This finding shows us that parents really are helping their kids get toward self-sufficiency and independence. They are supporting their kids in a temporary way when they experience a real negative event or challenge, like losing a job. It’s not like they’re just helping their kids sit around the house.

That’s one of our key findings: Parents are serving as safety nets for their kids. They’re catching them before they fall too far when a negative event happens. The idea is that the kid is on a good path and [the parents] don’t want them to get too derailed by the event. They want them to get back on the track as soon as possible.

As one parent told me in one of my interviews: “We’re here to be a backstop.”

MP: The financial help is also in the form of something you call “scaffolding,” right?

TS: Yes. Parents are not only providing a safety net, but they’re also helping their kids as their kids are trying to work toward building their skills to be better workers and have better opportunities in the job market.

MP: That’s reflected in the study’s finding that no matter what the young adult’s age, parents are more likely to help them out financially if they’re a student.

TS: Yes.

MP: You cite several limitations to this study, including the fact that when the participants for this study were recruited, St. Paul was less racially and ethnically diverse than it is today.

TS: Yes. That’s definitely one of the study’s drawbacks.

Also, the study was not nationally representative. It would be nice to do a study like this looking at a national sample in different kinds of economies and in different kinds of policy contexts in different states. We may have a more supportive infrastructure in Minnesota than in a lot of other states.

I also think it would be a good idea to do a study in the most recent recession because we could then see how the economy affects these situations. Maybe, for example, the parents have also lost their jobs and now don’t have enough money to provide for their young person.

MP: Not all young people have access to families who can give them support. Are they going to be left behind?

TS: I think that there’s a real possibility that the inequality that’s already growing in this country will be exacerbated by relying only on parents to fill in until the young person gets on their feet.

I’m doing an interview study right now with young people who are transitioning out of state programs, like foster care and criminal justice. Their stories are so completely different from those with parents who allow them to move back home or who give them a downpayment for a house or who pay for them to go to law school when they decide at age 30 that they want to change careers. It’s a completely different situation for those young adults.

MP: What does this willingness of parents to support young adults say about our society?

TS:  I think we have a lot of talk today about the decline of the family — that people are only looking out for themselves and don’t take care of one another. I think that this study gives us some signs that families do look out for one another, especially during hard times and when people are trying to achieve something. Families are going to step in and provide help and support.

We only measured living expenses and housing. My guess is there’s a lot more help going on as well in terms of emotional support or services such as babysitting, household help and transportation. Although I worry about the inequality that gets produced when we [as a society] only rely on families, I am quite optimistic about how families are doing today.

MP: It also seems that the relationships between generations are good.

TS: Yes. I’d say — particularly from the interviews I did — that things look good between the generations. Young people talk about their parents as people they not only love and admire, but really just enjoy being with. They like hanging out with them.

Maybe in previous generations people tried to break away from their parents, but these guys are staying around. When asked, “What’s the best thing you can do on the weekend?” they’ll say things like, “Go to my parents’ house for a barbecue.”

This interview has been condensed.

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Comments (1)

Not surprised that many young folks receive support from their parents; however I never did. I wasn't close to my family and I moved out at 18 in a studio (no roommates). However, I ended up doing a lot better economically than many people who actually received support. I think it made me more stronger, independent and tougher than anyone else I know. I have too much pride to ever accept a dime from my family.