Failure to Launch/Boomerang Kids: Part 1

Why are so many kids moving back home and can’t seem to navigate college life?  What can we be doing along the way to prepare kids to succeed once they move out of the house?

“Welcome Home.  When are you leaving?”

A Parent’s Guide to Boomerang Kids - Part 1

“Can anyone guess the age most developmental theorists agree adolescence ends for a male?”  

I pose this question in a parenting class I teach on Understanding Boys.   I break boy development into five stages and walk parents through the developmental shifts boys experience as they transition from boyhood to adult manhood. I’ve never asked the question that at least someone didn’t yell out “forty-five!”  The room erupts into laughter as we all envision some adult male we know who acts like an adolescent boy.  I respond that it’s earlier than forty-five but likely later than imagined.  Most theorists agree adolescence ends for a girl somewhere around 19-20.  For boys it’s years later - somewhere around 22-24.  Our current generation may cause us to adjust those numbers even more in the coming years.  

Approximately 18 million young adults ages 18-34 now live at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  This is a 42% increase since 1970.  Understanding these numbers has become more a part of our national conversation in recent years.  We are working to explain the “Failure to Launch” phenomena, to prevent “boomerang” kids, and to better assess the needs of these “emerging adults.”  

We use labels like “Generation Y,”  “Net Generation, and “Millennials” to describe the generation of people born between the years 1980 and 2000 roughly.  These individuals are known to be confidant, connected, and tech savvy.   They’ve also been characterized as the “me” generation and saddled with words like “entitled” and  “adultolescents.”  One can even take a quiz online to find out how “Millennial” you are.  The questions range from how often you receive text messages and engage social media, to questions about your political and religious views, and identifying if you have a piercing or tattoo.  

We continue to turn our attention on this next generation - their habits and practices, their thinking and beliefs, their views on vocation and money, God and family.  Social scientists continue struggling to understand the rise in numbers of young adults who move back home, developing theories to explain boomerangers.  

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a popular article for The New Yorker titled “Spoiled Rotten,” gathering responses from psychiatrists, psychologists, and anthropologists, assessing the values within contemporary American culture to better understand the “failure to launch” phenomena.  Within the article, the author drew fascinating comparisons to parenting practices within American culture and those of other cultures around the globe.  She raised questions about how helicopter parenting, lack of discipline, and practices that delay independence, could leave kids unprepared and slouching toward adulthood. 

Around the time parents in my class are laughing about the forty-something answer, I share a clip from the movie Failure to Launch.  The scene opens with a young adult man’s mother vacuuming his room, changing the sheets on his bed, gathering his dirty laundry and then making his breakfast.  She delivers a plate of hot pancakes and bacon, with warmed maple syrup, coffee and juice to the table, while he reads the daily news.  He finishes breakfast as she finishes packing his lunch. A following scene finds this young man dining with two buddies (who also live at home) complaining about being criticized for their lifestyle as one of them acknowledges “it will take a stick of dynamite to get me out of my parent’s house.”  

We know statistically more males live at home than females.  We also know fewer males are entering college than ever before, as well as graduate school.  The Pew Research Center released an article in 2012 titled “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic:  Coming of Age Slowly in a Tough Economy” where thousands of participants were evaluated in conjunction with data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The article highlighted the public opinion of adulthood beginning later, and how young adults have been affected by the most recent recession and current state of employment.  Equally important was the article’s findings on how the economy has influenced a range of coming-of-age decisions about schooling, career, marriage, and parenthood.  

As the conversation continues and researchers and social scientists evaluate the elevating statistics, we keep trying to understand the “why.”  

Are we enabling kids too much of the time?  

Are we hovering too close, eliminating necessary opportunities for risk and struggle?   

Are we nurturing dependence more than independence?  

Are young adults stuck developmentally in a permanent state of adolescence?

Why are they struggling to find a sense of purpose?

Do they seem fearful or unwilling to grow up? 

Is the economy limiting the opportunities?
Are young adults working at entry-level positions that won’t pay the bills to live alone?

Did a failed attempt at vocation or marriage land them back in their old bedroom?

The “why” questions give way to the question of “what can we do?”  How do we extend grace and mercy to returning kids, while also setting boundaries and offering the appropriate amount of tough love?  In the next couple months, we will post the next entries on this topic and we’ll take a look at some ideas around preventing boomerang kids and nurturing independence, as well as our response to kids who fail to launch for different reasons.


Young, Underemployed and Optimistic:  Coming of Age, Slowly, in a Tough Economy.  Pew Social & Demographic Trends.  February 9, 2012.

Spoiled Rotten:  Why do kids rule the roost?  by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, July 2, 2012.

Religious Affiliation:  Diverse & Dynamic.  U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.  The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.  February 2008.