When Young Adults “Fail to Launch”

by Kathleen Parrish, MA, LPC

I often hear the stories of young men and women who can’t seem to leave the proverbial nest.   They are those late twentysomethings who live at home with their parents.   They are jobless, penniless, and seemingly, motivationless.   They often have substance use problems and spend an inordinate amount of time online, cruising social media sites or playing video games. Many such young adults are depressed or anxious and have a pattern of academic or vocational failure. Parents of such young adults are perplexed by their adult child’s inability to successfully establish themselves outside of the home where they grew up. Despite attempts to motivate the adult child to change, the parents find themselves in a dilemma. Should they continue to support their adult child or should they set boundaries and follow through with consequences, such as having them move out of the house? Fears about their child suffering, starving, or becoming homeless often prevent parents from taking more extreme measures to change the situation.

The internet is full of information on this trend, called Failure to Launch Syndrome.   Failure to Launch Syndrome is characterized by low levels of motivation, poor work ethic, lack of vision for the future, inability or unwillingness to take responsibility when appropriate, and an inability to manage daily household chores or tasks of daily living.   Failure to Launch syndrome has been the topic of many recent news stories and was even featured in the 2006 film “Failure to Launch”, starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The prevalence of Failure to Launch syndrome in the US is striking. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report of the US Census Bureau, 36% of Millennials (Young Adults ages 18-31) are living in their parent’s home.   In 2012, approximately 21.6 million Millennials were living with their parents.   In 2012, only 63% of Millennials held jobs.   Approximately 40% of Millennials living at home with their parents are men and 32% are women.   This trend can be linked to a variety of factors, including socioeconomic changes, family systems problems, and mental health issues.

Socioeconomic problems are one of the primary struggles that young adults face when they contemplate leaving the financial security of their parent’s home. Young adults who have completed college are often unable to find employment that will allow them to meet basic needs, including paying for rent, gas, groceries or utility bills.   Young adults, who are accustomed to a certain standard of living growing up may have greater difficulty transitioning into a self-supported lifestyle with only the bare necessities.   The job market is highly competitive and a bachelor’s degree is no longer a guarantee of a high-paying job.  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for those with a bachelor’s degree was approximately $45,327.   This number varies greatly by field of study, location, current job market and the applicant’s previous employment experiences.  

Young Adults who are offered starting positions may find it difficult to tolerate a lower level of salary and responsibility than they might have expected upon graduation.  Because they spring from a generation who want instant gratification, young adults may have difficulty working in jobs that they believe are below their skill level or fail to appreciate opportunities to grow into a career from a lesser position than they desired.   Additionally, entry level positions in certain fields may require applicants to have a master’s degree or higher, further complicating the job search picture, considering that only 42% of young adult men (ages 18-25) and 58% of young adult women have master’s degrees.

While socioeconomic factors play a contributing role in the failure to launch scenario, family dynamics must also be examined.   Young adults who struggle to leave the family home may be influenced by family system dynamics such as pressure to perform, family discord, a family history of trauma or loss, or problems of excess without responsibility or consequence.   While other issues can contribute to a young adult’s difficulty with transition, family system issues such as these can interfere with their ability to trust that they are able to successfully move into an adult life without carrying the burdens of their family of origin with them.

Family dynamics may be a factor for the young adult who is anxious to transition into an independent lifestyle because he believes that his parents may divorce if he is no longer available to help them navigate conflict. Thus, this young adult may be unable to individuate from his parents and becomes a part of their dynamic and conflict. Parental mental health or addiction issues may also play a role in failure to launch. In such cases, a parent who is struggling with a serious mental health or substance use disorder may be unable to provide the foundation for mental health in the young adult that is so necessary for individuation. Family therapy is strongly warranted in families where a young adult has been unable to successfully launch into life as an independent adult. Exploring family dynamics that perpetuate young adult dependence on parents is necessary in order for the young adult to begin the process of growing up and out of his childhood home.   Family therapy may help families to examine boundaries, parental hierarchy, family values, and messages that underlie family dynamics.

A final and prevalent factor for young adults who experience difficulty moving into an adult role is that of mental health.   Many young adults who are unable to fully individuate struggle with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, personality disorders, gaming or internet addiction, eating disorders, or substance use disorders. Significant mental health problems preclude a young adult from being able to navigate the difficult tasks associated with independence. Young adults with mental health problems lack motivation, insight, and the capacity to cope with daily life challenges inherent in an adult world. They are unable to deal with conflict, meet deadlines or face responsibilities such as paying bills and maintaining a home or apartment.   Unfortunately, young adult mental health problems are often complicated with a co-occurring substance use disorder.   When a young adult is actively drinking alcohol or using drugs, they can become further entrenched in negative and self-destructive patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Young adults with co-occurring disorders should be provided with treatment opportunities that examine the complexities and challenges of successful individuation while addressing any underlying mental health and substance abuse issues.   Family support is crucial for those with co-occurring disorders, and family members must be educated about the process of recovery as well as the need to provide both boundaries and support for the affected young adult.

The use of the term Failure to Launch Syndrome can deter from the fact that this problem is a complex issue and is often the convergence of many life factors that prevent a young adult from fully achieving a successful and independent lifestyle. While it is important to recognize the prevalence of this problem among young adults, it is even more important to understand that the origins of this problem may vary from person to person.   Understanding what the difficulties may be for each individual allows for more effective treatment strategies and an increased likelihood that the young adult will make a successful transition into a life that he or she can proudly and uniquely embrace.

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