Sally Koslow: Boomers resist aging; message to kids: you've got plenty of time to grow up
She says lots of kids face a terrible job market; parents can't blunt that, should let kids deal
She says you do your kid no favor by playing concierge in his life, allowing delay of adulthood
Koslow: Parents need to step back for their adultescent kids to step forward
Editor’s Note: Sally Koslow is the author of “Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest” (Viking)
Dear baby boomer parents,
It’s time to talk. After people my age were done growing our hair long, wearing our bell bottoms and protesting the Vietnam War, we got jobs, mortgages, high cholesterol and bunions. Many of us also educated children – often at colleges that would never have admitted us – and groomed our kids to expect and accept only the best, never dreaming that they’d graduate into an economy that would crush even some of the brightest.
Plenty of our children have gotten the short straw.
Some 53% of people younger than 25 are unemployed or underemployed. Many have been crippled by indecision, picking a direction, reversing it, spinning the dial again, and flying two stars to the right, straight on till morning before they return to live with us again.
There is more, however, to their generational wandering and inertia than pure economics.
Boomers’ fury at the very idea that we have to age sends a subliminal message that there will always be time for our kids to get another degree or to surf another couch, to break up with one more partner or employer, and to wait around to reproduce, while ignoring the reality that opportunities will evaporate.
If parents aren’t old – and who among us doesn’t feel 35? – then for adultescents, the years must be standing still. If we’re not old, with our titanium joints and botox, how can we expect our kids to grow up? If we’re not old, our offspring, whose complete childhoods we archive in our hearts with four-color illustrations and footnotes, must remain big babies.
Boomers have established the 2.0 model for self-involvement, enhanced by boasting about our most prized assets, our kids, whose attention we crave, and who all too often exist on a broad plain of entitlement that we’ve hired gardeners to maintain if we’re not hoeing and mowing ourselves. In this devil of a job market, many young adults now exist in a cloud of overconfidence with an illusion of endless time.
Parenthood requires constant renegotiation, which is where boomers often bomb. We remain overinvolved in adultescents’ lives, another twist on not wanting to get old. It’s painful for us to recognize that biology’s imperative is for youngsters to manage without parents, and that many life lessons must be learned alone. We can’t teach kids how to learn to meet deadlines, get along with people and deal with rejection. These are solo projects.
On the motherhood spectrum, I’ve always felt laid-back. After my two sons got college diplomas, each one moved to the opposite coast. Roots and wings, I thought. That’s the ticket. But as a son became engaged to marry, I felt an unfamiliar panic. I realized it came from wondering if I’d done enough to prep my child for the rest of life. Did he have a full tool kit to evolve into the world’s most caring, contended man? Had I done my job to see that he was?
Tough nuts if he wasn’t, because the statute of limitations on micromanaging that process was running out. Was I ready to let go? No. But I’m trying.
I worry deeply about peers who won’t cop to this new job description, although I recognize that it’s harder for parents to let go if adultescents lead lives that appear much the same as 10 years ago, possibly even sleeping in their old bed. Nonetheless, it’s up to us to allow adult children to determine their fates.
Once kids graduate from college, it’s time to collectively peel off the bumper stickers and remind ourselves the ultimate goal as parents is to stop trying to vaccinate our children against every conceivable catastrophe. The best and most lasting gift we can offer our children is the chance to develop independence so that one day they can teach their own kids to do the same.
This means boomers acting like tough coaches, not fairy godparents with an indefatigable ability to solve problems and limitless credit cards: 59% of people 18 to 39 who are not students receive some financial aid from parents. Mothers and fathers should start early, or at least earlier, to give kids a crash course in the DIY drudgery – from tax prep to turkey trussing – that doesn’t make it onto school applications and resumes. These are the tasks our country undervalues.
And when young adults return to live at home, we need to establish rules as well as time frames for how long stays will last, along with encouraging kids to expand job searches and perhaps take any position until dream jobs come along.
Parents need to step back for adult children to step forward. With the time we gain by not being a concierge to kids’ lives, we can address the brain drain and social tragedy resulting from countless well-educated young adults lingering jobless, especially those who graduated in the dog years of 2007 and 2008. These adultescents aren’t damaged goods. They just look that way to employers, who when they do have a job to fill, prefer a more freshly graduated model.
Forcing ourselves to back off is no harder than what we expect of our children, whose journeys, I hope, lead them on a path to lasting fulfillment and calling home, often, so that both generations can say “I love you.”
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Koslow.