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The Younger Generation That Never Grew Up

<i> Kahn is a Santa Monica free-lance writer</i>

“I surrendered by moving back home. I left my job and couldn’t find another that paid enough. It was hard to ask my parents for help, but I had no choice. Now that I’ve been here a year, I’m not motivated to leave. With the cost of living, I can’t afford not to live with my mother and father.”

--Sherri, 24, Northridge

Though the details vary, Sherri’s situation is not unusual. Today’s young adults--if they spread their wings at all--are flying back home in flocks. According to mental health authorities and sociology experts, this generation is attracting attention not for its accomplishments, but for its problems.

“Young adults are being seen more in drug clinics, mental institutions and eating-disorder programs,” said Encino psychiatrist Michael Glasser. “They’re standing in unemployment lines and sleeping in parks and alleys. They’re going to jail. And, more than ever, they are showing up on their parents’ doorstep--defeated, scared, tired of the rat race or just broke.

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“A significant number in this age group are simply not making it on their own,” said Glasser, who specializes in the treatment of young adults.

According to numerous studies and his own experiences, Glasser estimates that “approximately one-third of the kids aged 18 to 25 are either severely dysfunctional or just functioning marginally. And that’s pretty scary.”

Economy’s Pressures

What is creating a generation of so many overwhelmed, underproductive young adults? The economy is most often blamed--specifically, high housing costs and low pay for entry-level jobs. Such pressures in turn influence the relationships, life styles and self-esteem of many young people. But, according to author Susan Littwin of Woodland Hills, today’s young adults have been programmed to fail--and what they’re failing at is growing up.

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“For the first time in our history,” said Littwin, “a generation of young adults is lingering in adolescence, and many have no desire to be anywhere else.” Littwin’s evidence comes from interviews with more than 100 people 20 through 30 years old, and her findings are the basis for a book recently published by William Morrow, “The Postponed Generation . . . Why American Youth Are Growing Up Later.”

The age range Littwin selected is significant. The upper limit of young adulthood previously was thought to be about 25 years old. By then, one had presumably left home, defined a separate identity and figured out a way to pay the bills. But many people well into their 30s are still struggling with those same issues. One reason for the postponement, Littwin said, is that today’s young adults were thrust into a world they were unprepared to cope with.

Unschooled in Adaptation

“They’ve been caught between the affluence and the experimentation of the ‘60s and the scarcity of the ‘80s,” Littwin said. “The ‘60s gave them high expectations and a sense of entitlement. As they’ve approached adulthood, what they’ve found instead is a world where there’s not enough to go around. Not only are their expectations not coming true, but many have poor skills for adapting to the disappointment.”

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Littwin isn’t alone in her assessments. Many Valley parents, teachers, therapists and college counselors call today’s young adults “uncommitted,” “unmotivated,” “lazy” and “floundering.” According to Jim Gordezsky, a Woodland Hills therapist specializing in marriage and family problems, this age group attempts to find spiritual values by climbing mountains, hang-gliding and taking drugs. “What they end up lacking is a grounding in reality,” he said.

They were raised in postwar years by parents who had had their fill of suffering,” Gordezsky said, adding that this impelled the parents to want their children to have better lives than they did.

“They . . . encouraged them to do their own thing,” he said. “The kids were left with the impression that they could have whatever they wanted. Many of them don’t know the benefit of struggling for a goal, and, even though their parents didn’t themselves grow up expecting life to be easy, they’ve inadvertently reinforced that in their kids,” he said.

Many young adults who still live at home are highly motivated, Glasser said. They are staying with their parents only until they finish school, find work or get a place to live. They balance their social life, work and study, and contribute to the household--if not financially, then in responsibilities assumed. Some admit enjoying the comforts of home because they dread being on their own--but they’re still on track.

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But for directionless young adults, home isn’t a rest stop--it’s a place to hide out.

“They are the failures,” said Glasser. “They don’t support themselves, train successfully for a career, form intimate relationships or have a normal social base outside the family. They haven’t formed an identity that’s purely their own.”

Parents’ Viewpoint

How do their parents feel about providing such refuge?

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“Some parents are sympathetic,” said Glasser. “They know that their kids will probably never match, let alone surpass, their life style. There are also some who are delighted to have the kids back home. They feel needed. They don’t have to deal with the loss of identity or of familiar old roles.”

“I feel guilty,” said Sherri’s mother, Ann. “I wonder what we did wrong. Sometimes I resent not being free to just think of myself and what I want to do. But I’m not sure that Sherri’s capable of living on her own, so how could I possibly ask her to leave?”

Glasser takes a strong stand on such guilt. “Many young adults who are hiding at home need to be pushed out the door--lovingly. Parents who keep rescuing their kids are creating more serious problems.

“When they won’t set firm limits and expectations, I ask them if they’ll promise, then, to outlive their kids. Because what happens if they die first (which is likely) and their children have never learned to take care of themselves? Who will rescue them then?”

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‘Something’s Missing’

Lyn Levine, a marriage and family therapist in Encino and Westwood, says, “Usually these kids recognize that something’s missing in their lives. If they get how their relationships and self-esteem are suffering, some just make a decision to go cold turkey and give up their comfort, their aimless drifting and their dependency on mom and dad. Then we focus on creating a new direction and determining the next appropriate actions.”

One good way to counteract the rut of overdependency is to plan ahead, the experts say. For instance, young adults bound for college can take advantage of career counselors who are trained to evaluate the job market in light of individual skills and interests.

According to Littwin, a survey done by the American Counsel on Education showed that only 5% of freshmen entering college intend to make use of such advisers.

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“I didn’t see the need,” said Sherri. “I thought that I could major in fine arts and finish college and get a job. It didn’t really occur to me that my major wasn’t particularly marketable. When I finally went to a counselor, all he could tell me was the sad truth.”

Time to Renegotiate

When parents and young adults are challenged with living together, they should renegotiate their old arrangements, say the experts.

Sherri and her parents, for instance, had to come to agreements about whether her boyfriend would be allowed to spend the night, who would do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, and how long Sherri could stay.

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As for therapy, Glasser pointed out that parents must first acknowledge that there’s a need for it. “Too often people think problems will go away just by denying they exist. They don’t. And, though I don’t want parents to blame themselves, they should be aware of their own influence.

“Our children see the world through us. They need clear, consistent limits and parameters about values and expectations--and about the consequences if they’re not met. If a kid is functioning fairly well, a reminder about your expectations is often enough, but kids who are more disturbed and less adaptable often need much firmer limits and rules in order to gradually learn to live out in the real world.

“Good parenting is basically like good therapy. Your job is to make yourself obsolete.”


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