Americans, it seems, are endlessly judgmental about how people are living their lives. What changes over time are the targets of their criticism. One group getting disparaged these days are the parents of young adult children. The complaint? That those parents are helping too much, maybe even coddling their offspring.
You’re Doing It Wrong! What Other People Think of Parents Helping their Grown Children
If you are a parent helping your young adult children and you feel judged, it is not your imagination. This summer (2019), the Pew Research Center asked members of their American Trends Panel whether they thought that the parents of young adults, ages 18 to 29, were doing too much for them, too little, or the right amount. The Panel is a nationally representative group of randomly selected adults. Nearly 10,000 people in the U.S. participated. They included all adults, not just those who were parents of grown children.
Only a third of them (34%) said that parents were doing the right amount for their children. Everyone else said they were doing it wrong. Overwhelmingly, they thought parents were doing too much for their grown kids — 55% said that, as compared to just 10% who said that the parents were doing too little.
Those overall numbers corresponded almost exactly to how the adults between the ages of 30 and 49 felt. The oldest people were the most judgmental. Nearly two-thirds of them (about 65%) thought that parents were giving too much help to their young adult children. The group that stood out from the rest were the adults who were themselves between the ages of 18 and 29; only 31% of them thought that parents of children their age were helping too much.
The Parents Giving the Help and the Children Receiving It Are Not Complaining
Although people are critical of the help that parents are providing to their young adult children, most of those parents (63%) think that the amount of help they are giving is the right amount. Of the others, more think they are giving too much (28%) rather than too little (8%).
Most young adults (65%) also think their parents are giving them the right amount of help. The rest are more evenly split as to whether their parents are helping them too much (18%) or too little (16%).
The Kinds of Help Parents Give: Money, Emotional Support, and a Place to Live
More than half of the parents of children between 18 and 29 years old (59%) say that they give them financial help. When young adults that age are asked about financial support from their parents, close to half of them (45%) say that they receive some.
Another way parents support their young adult children is by opening their homes to them. In 1980, it was rare for grown children between 25 and 29 years old to live with their parents; only 8% of the women and 14% of the men did so. Those numbers have continued to increase, even after the recession of 2007-2009 ended. In 2018, 17% of women that age and 27% of men lived with their parents.
The Pew survey found that half of young adults (ages 18-29) said they relied on a parent for emotional support. An even greater number of parents of young adults (77%) said that their kids relied on them for emotional support. In my research for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I found that parents and their grown children often have warm relationships with one another and enjoy living together, contrary to all the late-night jokes.
Why Young Adults May Need More Help Than They Did 40 Years Ago
When people in their 60s and older look askance at the help that young adults are getting from their parents, maybe they are thinking about the standards of their own youth. In 1980, for example, half of all adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 were financially independent. By 2010, when the recession had just ended, that number had reached a low point. Only 40% of young adults were financially independent. The numbers have slowly been recovering over time, but as of 2018, they still hadn’t gotten all the way back to where they were; 47%, not 50%, were financially independent.
Young people were hit hard by the recession. That’s one reason why they need more help than young adults did around 40 years ago.
Another reason is that young adults are living their lives differently. For example, since 1980, many more young adults have been pursuing higher education. In 1980, 21% of women and 24% of men had a bachelor’s degree or even more education; by 2018, those numbers grew to 41% and 33%, respectively. Many students work while they are in college, but college requirements do put considerable constraints on the time available for paid work. Again, the implication is the same: Young adults today are more financially vulnerable than they were a few decades ago.
Young adults are also living single longer; record numbers are predicted to stay single into their 50s and maybe for life. That also puts them at a financial disadvantage. If they live alone, they don’t get to split expenses. And regardless of their living arrangement, single people lose out on more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections accorded only to people who are legally married.
All told, young adults are getting more help from their parents now than they were decades ago. But they are leading very different lives, and both they and their parents are mostly fine with the current arrangements. Maybe everyone else should be less judgmental.