The Transitional Parent (Part 1 – Delayed Adulthood)

November 16, 2008

“Adulthood” – The period of time in your life after your physical growth has stopped and you are fully developed.  The state (and responsibilities) of a person who has attained maturity.

(WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University)

Much has been written about Gen Y’s relationships with their parents.  This has been a heavily “parented” generation with interesting results.  On one side, this, perhaps overly active parenting has led to young adults who are unwilling/unable to make their own decisions, insert their parents (or allow their parents to insert themselves) into their academic and professional lives in ways that are inappropriate, have a hard time going from zero-to-one on their own, have rarely faced disappointment or having to accept the consequences of their actions, and view their early to mid 20’s as an extension of their adolescence rather than the start of their adulthood.  On the other side, we see less rebellion.  We see a generation of parents and children who are extremely close and truly enjoy and value each other’s company more so that the early-to-mid 20 year olds of generations past.  I leave it to the psychologists to determine whether the lack of rebellion is troubling or welcome, while I focus on how this impacts the workplace.  That will be the focus of “The Transitional Parent – Part 2”.  In the meantime, here are some examples of how Gen Y’s delayed adulthood has manifested itself.

Decision Making Quandary
While many Gen Y’s have had input into family decisions since early childhood, that’s not the same as making your own decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions.  Parental input into college and job decisions of this generation is significant and apparent.  No longer is this just a sanity check in the background.

A Director of Career Services at a local University mentioned that they invite new students and their parents to orientation sessions.  The students and parents are combined for the opening remarks and are then separated for other activities.  Most do this separation seamlessly.  But several others fight the process.  “They’re concerned that decisions will need to be made without the opportunity to confer.” I was told.  I asked whether it was the students or the parents who were more concerned.  The Director said they were both equally concerned; the students that they wouldn’t be able to get advice or have the decisions made for them by their parents, the parents that the students might “make a mistake” or that the parent would not be informed of / involved in what decisions were made.

Do you think it’s reasonable that college aged students are fearful of making course decisions on their own (they could certainly have discussed this ahead of time)?  Do you think it’s reasonably that parents don’t trust their college aged children to make their own decisions?

Parents Where They Shouldn’t Be
Stories abound of universities and corporations who have had to add staff to handle the high volume of phone calls and emails from parents of their students and new/prospective employees.  One hiring manager told me of a phone call he recently had with the mother of a job candidate.  “The worst part,” he said, “was that I could hear the child/job candidate in the background.”  This was not a rogue, over protective parent secretly making a phone call.  This was done at the child’s request.  But here’s a story even more extreme!

I was recently told of a mother who showed up for a job interview in lieu of her daughter.  The lead recruiter for a large accounting firm was conducting the first part of the campus full interview day when he noticed that one person in his interview group was significantly older than the others.  Assuming this might be a non-traditional student, he didn’t think much of it.  That was until they went around the room and introduced themselves.  When he got to the non-traditional student, she announced that she was not the job candidate.  She was the job candidate’s mother.  The candidate herself was at another interview and would join the group later in the day.  But the interviewer need not worry, “I know more about her than she knows about herself,” the mother announced.

Is it reasonable for parents to show up in their child’s place at a job interview?  Is it reasonable for a parent to call to follow up on the interview’s outcome?  Do you think the daughter got the job?

Zero-to-One Challenges
Gen Y, while incredibly talented, don’t generally have great skills at going from “zero-to-one.”  Give many of them a “go solve this” project without “how to” directions or more information and they will often stall and focus on their other efforts which keep them active, busy and generally productive.  But, it doesn’t move the newly assigned project forward.  Give them just a little bit more guidance and information and they take off like a shot in ways that will amaze you.  I saw this time and again with many of my students.  In my “Management Lessons from ‘The Apprentice'” class, I had them write project plans.  I was constantly asked for a format/detailed outline that they could follow.  Instead I would give them a starting list of topics and insist that they think through all the information that needed to be presented and the format that would best showcase their plan.  They continued to creatively restate their request to get me to “tell them more.”  I knew if I did, they’d just do what I told them instead of thinking for themselves and finding their own voice.  Project Plan 1 was generally pretty bad as they stumbled through figuring it out for themselves.  By Project Plan 8, most plans were a thing of beauty and my students left the class confident that could think for themselves, rather than just do what they were told.  But why did they push so hard for the format/detailed outline in the first place?

I’ve recently gotten some personal insight into why they may not tend to be great “out of the block” starters.  Apparently, as a parent, it’s my fault <sigh>

My son, Carl, is seven years old, so he’s not Gen Y.  He’s whatever comes after Gen Y (Gen Z, Gen Next . . .)  But, ever since the start of second grade, he gets a packet of homework on Monday that’s due on Friday.  He breezes through the math, spelling, word games etc., but gets stuck on the essay.  He’ll look at the topic for a few minutes, and, if an idea doesn’t come to him quickly, he declares it impossible.  Then he grunts and groans and squirms.  He gets frustrated.  Then he starts to whine.  When the whining reaches fever pitch, I too get frustrated.  He begs for my ideas, concepts, insights, ANYTHING to help him get started.  I’m embarrassed to say that he always wears me down.  I need to get dinner going, I’m tired, and the whining is all I can take.  Just the smallest idea or comment can help get him out of neutral and then off he goes.  Once he has the concept, he makes it his own.  But, a time will come, like HOPEFULLY NEXT MONDAY, when he’ll need to come up with his own concepts.  To get from “zero-to-one” on his own when the answer doesn’t come right to him.  Am I helping or hurting him each time I give him that nudge?  Don’t answer that.  I know the answer.  I teach the answer.  But there’s something about the whining that brings me to doing this over and over again, against my better judgment.  How many parents (and teachers) give the same nudge.  No wonder our kids still need it.

There’s a fine line between guidance and giving the answer.  But there should also come a time when self-starting and working through things on their own happens.  Maybe it’s older than seven, but I saw the same tendency in many of my college aged students and think back now to wonder if their parents would have helped them more by not helping them so much.  I also wonder whether we help more and do more for our kids because we’re just so tired.  It’s hard to admit it, but sometimes I help, not just so the whining will stop, but so the homework will be completed and it will not only be off Carl’s head, but also off mine.  I know it should be his responsibility, but I still feel it’s mine to be sure it happens.  At what age do we hand over responsibility?  Seven, Ten, Fifteen, Twenty, Twenty-Five, Never?  It depends on the the topic, and the child, and it’s always a fine line.

Not Dealing with Disappointment and Consequences
Gen Y is the self-esteem generation.  The ones who grew up where everybody is a winner, everyone gets a trophy, so that no one will be disappointed.  The kids see that the awards mean less when everyone gets them, but the adults in their lives are reluctant to make distinctions for fear of hurting feeling, reducing self esteem, and (I’m guessing here) not wanting to deal with the fall out of a disappointed child (or worse yet, the defensive parent of disappointed child.)  Look at grade inflation.  Is that because kids are smarter and that a B is now average?

Another Carl story (sorry, Carl!)  When Carl was in kindergarten I signed him up for soccer.  It was 5 practices.  I won’t bore you with the details, but Carl made it through only 2 practices.  By practice 3 he cried so hard about not wanting to go anymore that (after watching him sob through the first 10 minutes of the third practice) I agreed that he could leave and not complete the “season.”  A few weeks after the end of the season, I got a call from the team’s coordinator asking what size Carl’s team  T-shirt should be and letting me know the cost of my portion of the trophy.  I informed the coordinator that I was happy to pay my portion for the trophies, but that Carl shouldn’t get a T-Shirt or a trophy.  “Won’t Carl be disappointed and feel left out if all the other kids on the team get them?”  I truly appreciated her concern, but told her that since he didn’t finish the season, he hadn’t earned them.  I got more push back, but insisted.  This wasn’t a terribly tough decision on my part.  I knew that Carl felt little connection to the team and wouldn’t really care about the T-Shirt and trophy.  But I was trying to set the precedent of needing to earn rewards.  Will I be this firm when he doesn’t meet his commitment and wants the reward?  I hope so.  But (see Zero-to-One challenges) the jury’s still out <sigh.>

As we shield our children from ever feeling sad, facing disappointment and accepting the consequences of their actions, are we taking the easy way out short term, but making things far harder for them in the long term?  Can we wonder why they’ll leave a job so quickly at the first hint of disappointment?

The Disposable Job
All of this, the lack of decision making, the over-actively advocating for 18 – 24 year old children, always helping them get from zero-to-one, and protecting them from disappointment, delays their adulthood.  It makes them view their early 20’s more as an extension of their adolescence and they don’t view that first job after college as an opportunity to commit to their work life and start building their professional skills, resume and network.  They take that first job far less seriously than perhaps they should.  Last story for now.

I recently got a call from a former student.  She was asking for help in looking for a new job.  I asked what happened at her current job.  She told me that she liked (didn’t love, but liked) her job.  But she had an opportunity to go to Europe for three weeks.  “They” wouldn’t give her the time off, so she gave her notice.  No hard feelings, she wasn’t angry that they wouldn’t give her time off, but she also wasn’t worried that it could be hard to find another job that she liked as well and that had such solid growth potential.  “I can go back and live at home after Europe.  I’ll find something else eventually.”

Is this the choice you would have made?
All this said, this generation has a wonderfully strong and positive relationship with their parents, so perhaps it’s hard to look at this too critically.  But this level of coddling, high touch, extended parenting leaves Gen Y’s first managers in a complicated position as they become, in essence, the transitional parent.  That will be the topic of my next blog which will include recommendations for parents, managers and Gen Y’s.

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