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Scaffold or Safety Net: Providing a Helping Hand

Media coverage of “emerging adults” often focuses on over-indulgent parents and slacker children, generating caustic comments laced with Horatio Alger tales from the 1960s and 70s: “I graduated from college and got a job, moved out on my own and never asked my parents for help. Today’s kids and parents are soft and lazy!”

But what’s the reality?   Is it  harder in the 21st century to launch into adulthood?  Are parents helping or hindering 20-somethings  by letting them move back home and giving financial support?  Academics, many affiliated with the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, are digging for answers based on hard data.

A recent research report comes from Dr. Teresa Toguchi Swartz, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota.  In a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Dr. Swartz found that support from parents can actually help adult children stay on track for their goals, not turn them in sleep-by-day, party-by-night animals.

The study, based on a survey of  more than 700 young adults aged 24 to 32, found that parental support in terms of housing and financial assistance is targeted to help adult children embark on  real life.   Dr. Swartz divided the kinds of support parents offer into two categories: scaffolding and safety nets.  We spoke on the phone last week with Dr. Swartz, who is doing ongoing research about emerging adults.


Q. What’s the difference between scaffolding and safety nets?

With the safety net, adult children have hit a major bump in the road that could seriously derail them. The parents provide help under some crisis situation like divorce, serious illness, sudden loss of a job  and being victim of serious crime. The parents don’t want that event to put the child on the wrong track so they offer the help to keep them heading in the right direction.

Scaffolding is a situation where parents help  children reach a particular goal by giving them a launching pad.  Perhaps the child is enrolled in school and needs help with tuition; perhaps the child is saving for a down payment for a house and wants to live at home for awhile to maximize saving money. These were the most common situations where parents were giving help. We didn’t find a lot of slacker kids living in the basement. For the most part they needed temporary help, not unconditional mooching.

Q. Do parents believe it’s harder for this generation of young adults to launch?

A. Some of the parents I interviewed talked about how different it is today from when they were young adults.  One mom told me that when she went off to college she was given a pink Samsonite and expected to be on her own from there on out. Recently when her own daughter came back from six years in the Air Force including tours in Iraq, she came home to live because although she could afford her tuition, at age 25 she needed help with housing costs. It really is a different experience for this generation.

Q. You call the transition to adulthood a “collaborative process.” What do you mean?

A. Previous generations could expect to graduate from high school and find a job. The adolescent-to-adult period was a quick, rapid juncture.  Now its really extended with back- and-forth, moving in and out of school and finding a job that pays a living wage.

Adult children’s needs change over time so parents step in when help is necessary. Then they step back, not micro managing their child’s life, but serving as a sounding board.  Then at yet another stage parents aren’t needed to help make decisions but  rather  just listen to their children as they would do with anyone they care about.

Q. In your ongoing research have you found a cultural shift in parents’ expectations for their children?

A. A lot of upper and middle-class parents want kids to follow their dreams and have a fulfilling life and career. They don’t want them to flounder at the beginning of their careers. They don’t mind if they make $10 an hour to start; they just want to help make sure that it’s not for the rest of their lives.

Parents also find there are more road blocks to upward mobility in jobs these days in terms of needed credentials and jobs with definite career trajectories. They realize that young people may need to change careers several times over their lives and need an armory of different skills so they can keep up in this unstable and ever-changing job market.

Q. You found that young men tend to move back home for longer periods than young women.  Why is that?

A. There are still gender differences.  We found that for young women there are not as many as cushy feathers at home.  They are expected to contribute to the household chores more than young men.  Also young women are more monitored so far as their social activities so they are often more motivated to get their own places faster than young men.

Q. Your study found that while  almost half of the young adults received money or housing help during their 20s by the time they reach their early 30s only about only 10 to 15 percent received financial or housing.  What changed?

A. It was less a matter of age and more of the children eventually taking on  adult roles as incomes got higher.  The biggest indicator of independence though was when young adults either married or moved in with a partner. Both parents and children interpreted that step as an indication that it was time for the young person to fully take care of themselves.

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