It would be the longest month of my life.
I had been searching for six months and wasn’t a step closer to discovering the Holy Grail. The year was 1992 and the economic outlook for a freshly minted college graduate was no better than it is today. Unemployment sat at 8% the morning I donned the cap and gown and my graduation day hangover was made worse from fear I had yet to find what the college recruiter promised four years earlier – a job.
I had considered graduate school but another standardized test made me nauseous and two more years of higher education would require giving in on the one thing I dreaded worse than being unemployed – living with my parents. Life in their home wasn’t entirely oppressive during college, though my father lived by the now Machiavellian conviction that his roof meant his rules. Each visit home was made tolerable for one reason; it was temporary. Every holiday break and summer vacation came with an expiration date. Circled on my calendar in bright red was marked the start of another semester when I could once again soak in the sweet waters of collegiate freedom.
Suffering is less so when it’s temporary and includes laundry service.
But things had changed that May afternoon as I pulled my ’88 Cavalier, with its neon ‘Ultra Cool’ window sticker, in the drive. I was banished from the halls of higher learning by way of a degree and I knew this visit would come with a shelf life; there would be no U-turn in August; this wasn’t in the fraternity house anymore.
If being an unemployed college graduate wasn’t humiliating enough –moving back under my parent’s roof and my dad’s rules sent me looking for a rock; but it was also the lone spark that ignited an inferno. Employment became my burning obsession and my loss of freedom prompted me to dismiss any haughty notion of landing the ‘right job’ that would give me the kind of life I wanted. I just needed a steady job that would erase some of my shame and pay enough to cover rent. Things got so desperate I even adopted Maria Carey’s hit Make It Happen as my job search theme song.
It would take thirty humbling and eternally long days, a bit of interview over-sell, and a $4,000 bank loan to pay the recruiter fee before I landed my first job, my own place, and a ticket out of my parents’ home, for good.
This story was all I could think while reading an AP article on a new report showing 15% of young people – six million aged 16 to 24 – do not have a job or a desk, they aren’t employed or in school. Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations with over 100,000 ‘idle youth’. The study didn’t distinguish how many of these are college graduates, but this much is certain, if they aren’t working or in school they’re either living under a bridge or in dad’s basement; making many part of what’s now called – the boomerang generation.
This outbreak of highly educated college graduates still nursing from the parental tit has forced the Queen and I to evaluate how we might respond in a similar situation. What would we do if ours needed to move back home after graduation, because they couldn’t find at job or more precisely the ‘right’ job? With four kids, the odds are good one will surely try to bounce back.
It’s this distinct possibility that led us to tear a page from her father’s parenting playbook and claim it as our own.
When the Queen left for college her father issued one decree – do not come home after graduation. He made it crystal clear from day one freshman year that her eventual diploma was also a one-way ticket to the real world. The tab, kept open for the past two decades that included a prestigious college education, would promptly be closed.
It was the best motivation he could have ever given.
There are two kinds of tightrope walkers, those who work with a net and those who don’t. It’s easy to notice how the more carefree of the two, those less attentive and more reckless, use the safety net. The one relying on gravity to break a three-story fall is much more deliberate and focused, treating each step as it could well be the last.
I think kids act a lot like tightrope walkers.
Would kids be more focused about their choices during college and have a greater urgency about graduation if they knew their safety net – namely their parents’ financial support – would disappear when it was over, that when college ends so does the gravy train? I believe they would, so much so that for the past few years the Queen and I, mostly in passing, have let it be known to each of our children there will be no boomeranging home after graduation. There will be nothing to boomerang back to; once the last is in college our aim is to move, downsize, and reinvent our lives as ‘empty nesters’; not to provide a soft landing so they can figure out what to do with their lives – they had four years to do that. The way we look at it, if it’s an option it’s a possibility. If it’s not an alternative, it’s not an expectation.
I’m convinced the basic problem with these six million idle youth, and countless other boomerang kids, isn’t so much economic as it is parental. Mom or dad is allowing these kids to remain idle, in a state of perpetual adolescent limbo, curbing their growth and stunting their maturity. Somebody is continuing to pay the bill.So why would any kid ever decide to grow up, get a job – even a undesirable job – and leave the nest if parents don’t push him to do so by making it so easy to stay? If a kid has the expectation she can move home after college, maintain the same freedoms she had on campus while staying on mom and dad’s dime, why should we be surprised when she takes the offer then doesn’t want to leave?
This may sound overly simplistic, but parent can ‘what if’ this topic to death. Often such choices demand black and white answers. It’s one of the situations that make our job as moms and dads so utterly difficult. Such decisions like that made by the Queen’s father go against the larger culture and our basic parental instinct. How could any parent treat their children so harshly? But when we consider the few alternatives available how can we argue that tough love isn’t the better option for ours and their long-term future?
Here’s to hoping we never find out.