MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL — A new University of Minnesota study shows that contrary to popular anxieties about slacker young adults who refuse to grow up, or indulgent parents who stifle their adult children’s development by continuing to support them, there is evidence that parental assistance in early adulthood promotes progress toward autonomy and self-reliance. The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
“The fact that young people depend so heavily upon their parents well beyond the age when most people from earlier generations had already started families and had dependable jobs has triggered a great deal of public anxiety over whether these trends signal young adult immaturity and stunted development,” says sociology professor and study author Teresa Swartz. “The larger social trends in delaying family formation may be one reason for the extended dependence upon parents. Today, the road to adulthood is much longer and more arduous than it was 30 years ago.”
The researchers collected longitudinal data to examine the conditions under which young adults are more likely to receive financial support for living expenses, or to live in the parental home. Although almost half of the respondents received either money for living expenses or lived with their parents (or both) in their mid-20s, only 10-15 percent received financial or housing help when in their early 30s. The likelihood of receiving financial help decreased 15 percent each year, and the likelihood of living with parents decreased by 18 percent each year. “These results indicate that young people do eventually become independent of parents as they grow older.”
Beyond the effects of age, young people were more likely to receive help from their parents if they were students or had encountered recent difficulties such as a job loss, a serious illness or a divorce. “Parental aid serves as ‘scaffolding’ to help young people who are working towards financial self-sufficiency and as ‘safety nets’ for those who have experienced serious difficulties. In an economy that requires advanced education for good jobs, parents are more likely to aid their children when they are students. As the labor market offers fewer opportunities for stable, full-time, well-paid work for the young, parents often fill in when needed,” says Swartz.
The authors find that parental support tapers as young adult children take on adult roles such as earning higher incomes or forming families, regardless of their age. “Forming intimate partnerships, in the forms of marriage and cohabitation, appears to signal to parents that their children have moved into adulthood and should now be on their own. Although family formation is largely understood as a ‘choice’ today and not viewed as essential for achieving adult status, it does appear that parents and/or adult children themselves interpret family formation as an indicator that adult self-sufficiency is appropriate.”
The sample examined in this study is part of the Youth Development Study, an ongoing longitudinal study begun in 1988 gathered from St. Paul public schools when the youth were in ninth grade. The original sample included 1,010 adolescents who were randomly selected from St. Paul public high schools. The participants have been surveyed annually since, and now are approximately 37-38 years old. The analysis for this article spans the years from when the young people were 24-32 years old.