A number of executives have listed in recent coaching sessions one of the major sources of stress in their lives as the return to their previously wonderfully empty nest, of unemployed adult offspring. In the vernacular Boomerang Kids.
This is not my area of expertise at all, other than having a newly graduated son facing a desperate career market and either unemployment or unpaid –employment (aka internships). The reality is that the thought of any part of his life (or person) being centred on or close to my sofa, actually fills us both equally with horror. But it might happen yet if his best efforts fail.
After multiple mentions in coaching sessions and friends talking endlessly about the same topic, it was clear that some in-depth research was required.
This is what I found.
In 2007, 55% of men and 48% of women aged 18-to-24, lived with their parents, and certainly those numbers have only grown since the recession hit. In the UK, the most recent labour market survey shows unemployment growing fastest in this age group with employment prospects for the class of 2009 the worst in over 25 years. In the US The Department of Labor reports that the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders under age 27 has is at an all time high since 1983. In addition to a difficult job market, students are graduating with higher debt levels than ever before, with the cost of living outstripping entry-level starting salaries, which have been driven downward (happily for employers) by excess demand they are unable to make their rent money.
Not unsurprisingly kids are returning home to reduce costs. This is damaging to their self-confidence and threatening their budding sense of independence. Young people with high achieving parents are stressed by their inability to meet their parents even unstated expectations. They struggle with the notion that they may have to downgrade their own ambitions and take lower level jobs, as companies have their pick of top graduates from elite universities. In some cases depression kicks in. Factor in that the kids of baby boomers have been sheltered from hard times and this is possibly the first serious recession which has impacted them. During the last one in the early 90s most of them were less than 10 so can’t be blamed.
My observation from personal experience, is that they feel anxious, overwhelmed and vulnerable about their long-term abilities to support themselves in the way they had hoped to ( i.e. have been used to) and with some there is also a certain sense of righteous entitlement. They now exhibit all the usual symptoms of stress. I hear stories of web loafing, Laurent Brouat’s great phrase for sitting at the computer, doing nothing productive and busy-ness. This is my less great word for being busy when you’re really not being productive at all; erratic schedules (late mornings and even later nights) TV marathons, erratic eating and so on.
So what is going on for Mum and Dad at this point, my beleaguered executives, as Junior heads home? Any one or all of a number of things.
For the most part this is one of the most stressful period of their lives. If they still have a job they are under severe pressure, or possibly at risk. Otherwise they are unemployed with everything that implies. Pension pots are reduced, their property has decreased in value. Costs are rising. Any plans to downsize and travel in retirement are looking like pipe dreams and the future has become a black hole of anxiety. They might even now have to defer retirement. When in more buoyant times they could have funded their returning child to some degree, that will now put a strain on the family budget. A young adult is now living, or even taking over, their home and creating tension which is percolating into their professional and even marital lives.
For the most part this is one of the most stressful period of the executive lives.
Loss of control
For senior executives used to managing teams and being in control, they now have a “team member” who somewhat inconsiderately is not responding at all, or if they are, it’s in a non- business fashion. My C level execs are contending with door slamming, feet on coffee tables, pouting and petulance without being able to call HR to fire the kid. Sensitive issues they would deal with correctly and constructively in the office escalate in the family environment. Two executives reported serious stand offs with their offspring as tensions rise. Tendencies to helicopter manage the young person’s job search efforts or activities intensify as does the stress.
The bottom line is that Gen Y and the Boomers are both in transition – but just not the ones they hoped for. Mum and Dad had planned to move effortlessly into their well deserved golden years and Junior was all set to blaze a glowing trail along the career path of choice. Instead, both generations are dealing with stress and anxiety not just about their present lives but their futures too. Result = massive tension and discord.
So is there a solution?
Of course – but the ideal way according to the experts if not always easy and centres on not reverting to the traditional roles as the carer and cared for, which is what we tend to do in our role as parents. It actually does involve a more business style approach ,including negotiating and agreeing clearly defined ground rules and boundaries. Pretty much like in the office – but easier said than done at home for many. It obviously also varies between cultures – in some countries young adults traditionally stay at home longer. So the litmus test is presumably is it a problem?
The main factor according to Diane Viere a specialist in setting boundaries for adult children, is to learn to make a distinction between “enabling”, doing something for young adults that they could do themselves and ” helping” them, i.e.-supporting them constructively on their road to independence. She also advises us parents to beware of the need to control – something we are used to doing in our professional lives.
How to do that?
1. Close the bank of Mum and Dad: It may be tempting to bail your kid out financially and protect them with all the luxuries and security of the family home, but this will not help them in the long run. It fails to teach financial responsibility and as most actually want to be independent will end up damaging their self-esteem. The best solution is to support them re-structuring their debts thus giving them life skills. It is inadvisable for parents to co-sign credit cards, leases or other loans. If your child misses payments, your credit rating could be damaged. Make a formal contract with them if you need to.
2. Don’t sacrifice your own financial future: Decide how much you want and can afford to help. Some parents provide more financial support than they can actually afford. One executive I deal with who was the guarantor on her young adult’s rental agreement found that her son had defaulted on his payment for 6 months. It was Mum and Dad who scrambled around to find the cash, cutting into the pension fund to prevent legal action. Young adults have many years to build their financial security, while you may be only a few years away from your retirement date. Ironically, if you are not careful, you could end up depending on your children for help in your old age.
3. Home does not = hotel: Insist on responsibilities, which may include paying rent and/or payment in kind, such as taking on household chores. This can often be negotiated. One method is to ask the returning child what he or she believes would be reasonable rent. This is also the area, when not clearly laid out, that can result in the most misunderstandings, as adult children return to old habits of expecting to be taken care of. If the returning adult is old enough to stay out late, drive a car ( possibly yours) and have adult relationships – they are old enough to take out the trash and cook dinner.
Home does not = hotel – make sure you set out guidelines and boundaries
4. Set out guidelines: covering curfews (I am no stranger to the young adult clock and trust me, it’s not like mine!) visitors (ditto – or like me you may find kids in your kitchen having breakfast at 3 in the afternoon ), smoking (it is perfectly acceptable to have a house rule) vehicle usage. Another professional runs a tight ship in the office and was frustrated because her graduate sat in front of the TV all day and refused to do tasks that he considered demeaning (cutting the grass or washing the car). Mum however did this when she got in from a 10 hour day in the office.
5. Agree a schedule: one young grad I recently coached started his day at 0930 and seriously, was genuinely taken aback when I expressed surprise at what looked very much to me like a lie-in. After coffee, his day kicked off at 1000. This is not the real world. They need to be up, dressed and good to go in job searching mode for 0900. Looking for a job is their job. It’s about self-discipline and structure. Not only does it help with getting a job, but structure and action do reduce anxiety. This is all hard to monitor if parents work, but a goal I urge entry-level coachees to strive for.
6. Encourage goal setting: encourage the grad to set him or herself realistic and achievable goals (remember all those SMART/SOLVE workshops you attended as a manager) . Recognise achievements without being indulgent. They are not in kindergarten. Getting out of bed and making coffee does not count! Encourage physical exercise, volunteering, plus social and professional networking. Gen Y are light years ahead of us in technology, but are sometimes reluctant and inexperienced when it comes to physical actual networking.
7. Set a deadline: Kids should not be given an open-ended invitation to move back home. A deadline is important; it enables you and your child to measure the progress he/she is making towards becoming independent. If your boomerang kid has a job, perhaps the deadline could be based on a date: After X number of months, he or she will have saved enough to meet X, Y, and Z financial goals and then can move out. If your child is unemployed, perhaps the deadline is based on finding a job or paying off a certain percentage of debt.
8. Charge rent: Even a nominal amount is advised by the experts, so the young adult feels he or she is contributing something. It’s a good idea to write-up a rental agreement and stick to the payments on a regular basis. Whether you do this on a scientific basis of a percentage of actual bills or on a felt fair basis is up to you, or simply operate a barter economy. Chores for cash.
If your Boomerang Kids are unemployed over a long period without success in their job search, then seeking professional support is a must. Most countries operate programmes for young people within the community. If they are graduates they may still may be eligible for support from their alma mater colleges.
With all these strategies firmly in place, the executives should then be able to get on with their own lives… right? .
Watch this space!
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