Bringing Up Adultolescents

When Silvia Geraci goes out to dinner with friends, she has a flash of anxiety when the check comes. She can pay her share--her parents give her enough money to cover all her expenses. It's just that others in her circle make their own money now. "I know I haven't earned what I have. It's been given to me," says Geraci, 22, who returned to her childhood home in suburban New York after graduating from college last year. "It's like I'm stuck in an in-between spot. Sometimes I wonder if I'm getting left behind." Poised on the brink of what should be a bright future, Geraci and millions like her face a thoroughly modern truth: it's hard to feel like a Master of the Universe when you're sleeping in your old twin bed.

Whether it's reconverting the guest room back into a bedroom, paying for graduate school, writing a blizzard of small checks to cover rent and health-insurance premiums or acting as career counselors, parents across the country are trying to provide their twentysomethings with the tools they'll need to be self-sufficient--someday. In the process, they have created a whole new breed of child--the adultolescent.

For their part, these overgrown kids seem content to enjoy the protection of their parents as they drift from adolescence to early adulthood. Relying on your folks to light the shadowy path to the future has become so accepted that even the ultimate loser move--returning home to live with your parents--has lost its stigma. According to the 2000 Census, nearly 4 million people between the ages of 25 and 34 live with their parents. And there are signs that even more moms and dads will be welcoming their not-so-little-ones back home. Last week, in an online survey by, a job-search firm, 60 percent of college students reported that they planned to live at home after graduation--and 21 percent said they planned to remain there for more than a year.

Unlike their counterparts in the early '90s, adultolescents aren't demoralized slackers lining up for the bathroom with their longing-to-be-empty-nester parents. Iris and Andrew Aronson, two doctors in Chicago, were happy when their daughter, Elena, 24, a Smith graduate, got a modest-paying job and moved back home last year. It seemed a natural extension of their parenting philosophy--make the children feel secure enough and they'll eventually strike out on their own. "When she was an infant, the so-called experts said letting babies cry themselves to sleep was the only way to teach them to sleep independent of their mother," says Iris. "But I never did that either." Come fall, Elena is heading off to graduate school. Her sister, who will graduate from Stanford University this spring, is moving in. Living at home works, Elena explains, because she's knows she's leaving. "Otherwise, it'll feel too much like high school," says Elena. "As it is, sometimes I look around and think, 'OK, now it's time to start my homework'."

Most adultolescents no longer hope, or even desire, to hit the traditional benchmarks of independence--marriage, kids, owning a home, financial autonomy--in the years following college. The average age for a first marriage is now 26, four years later than it was in 1970, and childbearing is often postponed for a decade or more after that. Jobs are scarce, and increasingly, high-paying careers require a graduate degree. The decades-long run-up in the housing market has made a starter home a pipe dream for most people under 30. "The conveyor belt that transported adolescents into adulthood has broken down," says Dr. Frank Furstenberg, who heads up a $3.4 million project by the MacArthur Foundation studying the adultolescent phenomenon.

Beyond the economic realities, there are some complicated psychological bonds that keep able-bodied college graduates on their parents' payroll. Unlike the Woodstock generation, this current crop of twentysomethings aren't building their adult identity in reaction to their parents' way of life. In the 1960's, kids crowed about not trusting anyone over 30; these days, they can't live without them. "We are seeing a closer relationship between generations than we have seen since World War II," says University of Maryland psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. "These young people genuinely like and respect their parents."

To some, all this support and protection--known as "scaffolding" among the experts--looks like an insidious form of co-dependence. Psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld says these are the same hyperinvolved parents who got minivan fatigue from ferrying their kids to extracurricular activities and turned college admission into a competitive sport. "They've convinced themselves they know how to lead a good life, and they want to get that for their kids, no matter what," says Rosenfeld.

By the time those children reach their 20s, says market researcher Neil Howe, their desires for the future are often indistinguishable from the desires of their parents. "The Me Generation," says Howe, "has simply turned into the Mini-Me Generation."

Trying to guarantee your children the Good Life, though, can sometimes backfire. A few years ago, Janice Charlton of Philadelphia pressured her daughter, Mary, then 26, to get a master's degree, even agreeing to cosign two $17,000 school loans if she did. Mary dropped out, Janice says, and the loans went into default. "I'm sorry I ever suggested it," says Janice. "We're still close but it's a sticky issue between us."

Many parents say they're simply ensuring that their kids have an edge in an increasingly competitive world. When Tom D'Agnes's daughter, Heather, 26, told him she was thinking about graduate school, D'Agnes, 52, flew from their home in Hawaii to San Francisco to help her find one. He edited the essay section of her application and vetted her letters of recommendation, too. While Tom's wife, Leona, worried about creating a "dependency mentality," Tom was adamant about giving his daughter a leg up.

Parents aren't waiting to get involved. Campus career counselors report being flooded with calls from parents anxious to participate in their college senior's job search. Last fall the U.S. Navy began sending letters describing their programs to potential recruits--and their parents. "Parents are becoming actively involved in the career decisions of their children," says Cmdr. Steven Lowry, public-affairs officer for Navy recruiting. "We don't recruit the individual anymore. We recruit the whole family."

The steady flow of cash from one generation of active consumers to another has marketers salivating. These twentysomethings are adventuresome, will try new products and have a hefty amount of discretionary money. "They're willing to spend it on computers and big-screen TVs, travel and sports cars, things that other generations would consider frivolous," says David Morrison, whose firm, Twentysomething Inc., probes adultolescents for companies like Coca-Cola and Nokia.

Jimmy Finn, 24, a paralegal at the Manhattan-based law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, made the most of his $66,000 annual income by moving back to his childhood home in nearby Staten Island. While his other friends paid exorbitant rents, Finn bought a new car and plane tickets to Florida so he could see his girlfriend on the weekends. He had ample spending money for restaurants and cabs, and began paying down his student loans. "New York is a great young person's city but you can't beat home for the meals," says Finn.

With adultolescents all but begging for years of support after college, many parents admit they're not sure when a safety net becomes a suffocating blanket. "I've seen parents willing to destroy themselves financially," says financial planner Bill Mahoney of Oxford, Mass. "They're giving their college graduates $20,000, $30,000, even $40,000--money they should be plowing into retirement." And it might only buy them added years of frustration. Psychiatrists say it's tough to convince a parent that self-sufficiency is the one thing they can't give their children.

No matter how loving the parent-child bond, parents inevitably heave a sigh of relief when their adult kids finally start paying their own way. Seven months ago, when Finn's paralegal job moved to Washington, D.C., he left home and got an apartment there. The transition, he said, was hard on his mother, Margie. Mom, though, reports that she's doing just fine. She's stopped making plates of ziti and meatballs for her boy and has more time for her friends. "The idea all along was that he should be self-sufficient," she says. It just took a little while.