It was a bountiful Christmas for Katie Tobin.
Returning to Toronto from her family home in Oxford Mills, Ont., the 23-year-old fashion assistant was loaded up with gifts, as well as three boxes of groceries, homemade pasta and a wheel of cheese, specially ordered by Dad. Ms. Tobin also carted back several loads of laundry, washed and folded by Mom.
“I am capable of doing my laundry. She just loves doing that stuff for us,” said Ms. Tobin, who also gets fresh baked brownies when she sails into town every two months.
Her mother Barb, a high school teacher, rationalized it this way: “In my mind, I’m helping give her something from home.”
But upon closer reflection, Ms. Tobin’s mother acknowledged that the carload of treats and fresh laundry could symbolize nothing short of a generational shift.
“In my generation, it was, ‘I’m educated, I’m out, I’m gone.’ Kids don’t necessarily cut that tie any more. It’s not that they’re not living independently, but they rely on some family life to keep them moving forward, financially in particular.”
As the economy continues to falter and adult children forego marriage to doggedly pursue careers, many are accepting and depending on a wide variety of aid from their middle-aged parents, from pocket money, rides, dinner-to-go and laundry service to home improvement and even help with their backbreaking moves.
The dynamic is documented in a new study from Purdue University, whose authors argue that adult children are getting more help – even after they’ve left home – than only a generation ago, because it’s “a more complicated world.”
“Parents are stepping in to get their children launched into adulthood. They’re like 25 before they’re really getting the hang of things,” said study author Karen Fingerman, the Berner-Hanley professor in gerontology at Purdue.
The study, published last month in the Journal of Marriage and Family and funded by The National Institute of Aging, looked at the relationships of 633 Philadelphia-area parents, aged 40 to 60, and their 1,384 children, aged 18 to 33. The authors found that many of the grown children were having trouble weaning themselves off the parental teat: 76 per cent got domestic help monthly, 79 per cent got money most months and 93 per cent got a check-in chat or other emotional support weekly.
“This is a lot more than parents were doing for their grown kids 20 years ago,” said Dr. Fingerman, pointing to a 1988 study in which just a third of the parents surveyed offered their brood monthly support.
In the new study, younger children received more support than their older siblings. Those with “problems” – including job loss, divorce and health issues – got more money and practical support than “successful children,” who got more advice and emotional help. Women got more help than men, and gave more back.
Vince, a 33-year-old Toronto marketer who did not want his last name used, only stopped handing his laundry over to his mother when he moved in with his girlfriend a few months ago.
After moving out at 27, Vince says, he would regularly return to his parents’ house with the purpose of doing his own laundry. But his mother, a nurse then in her late 50s, would “just take it over.” The setup was “compounded” when Vince began stopping in on the way to flag football: “I would get it started and she’d finish it for me. I’m talking about three loads.”
Afterwards, the laundry would be ironed and folded “10,000 times better than I could ever do,” Vince said.
“It was very unspoken. I would never say, ‘Here’s the laundry. Can I have it done by 5?’ ”
Today, Vince’s mom will still visit him with care packages and send him home with leftovers.
Like Vince’s mom, Dr. Fingerman is letting a laundry-challenged generation off the hook.
“Is it prolonged adolescence? A little bit of it is that, but I think parents are helping kids navigate through a much more complicated world than we used to live in. It takes much longer to get a career and much longer to get settled in a relationship than it did 50 years ago,” Dr. Fingerman said.
She added: “These kids are not malfunctioning. They’re making their way towards successful goals.”
Other experts find the increasing incidence of protracted adolescence more troubling.
“If you spend 10 formative years at your peak capacity depending on other people, that has to set up a habit of how you behave in the world,” said Joseph Allen, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old.
Dr. Allen points to some of his 40-year-old clients who dip into their parents’ pensions to cover their rent and children’s schooling. But he is reluctant to blame the parents, saying those who push care packages on their 30-year-olds are “desperately trying to hold onto something.”
“A lot of parents say, ‘I wish they could just stay kids a bit longer.’ That’s what they’re getting, but it’s at the cost of adults still dependent years after they could make it on their own,” said Dr. Allen, who teaches courses on adolescence at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Allen, who is 51, said some of his older colleagues find the trend “shocking,” mostly because they remember their own independence as exhilarating, even if it meant washing their own socks.
“When they were 18, they went off to college and they were on their own. They checked in once or twice a month, maybe. They said it was a terror and a thrill to know that it was really just up to you – there was nothing more motivating than that. And that’s what we’re taking away.”
At what point, barring unexpected life events, should they be expected to function on their own? I don't think the majority of these parents are doing their adult children favours by allowing a protracted adolescence.