‘Failure to launch’? Stereotypes around youth transitions to adulthood

In this post, Emma Hyde draws on her PhD findings to interrogate common stereotypes about young adults living in their parents’ home. Emma complicates the characterisation of a ‘failed launch’ into ‘adulthood’, emphasising the social and economic conditions and relations that enable or constrain opportunities for independent lifestyles.

Particularly in the UK (and Mediterranean Europe), growing numbers of young people are living with their parents into their late twenties and thirties (Hill et al., 2020). Delays in moving out are perhaps unsurprising given rising housing costs, an increasingly casualised labour market, and over a decade of government austerity and welfare cuts (Green, 2017). Whilst attitudes vary across international and cultural contexts, in many Western societies prolonged living with parents is problematized as a delayed transition to adulthood (Kins and Beyers, 2010)

An article in the Scientific American warned that ‘when young adults stay at home, don’t search for a job or contribute financially… we have the foundation of failure to launch. Add unrealistic goals, blaming others for their situation, and a lack of motivation to change, and lift-off is almost sure to be grounded’. Such characterisations fail to connect struggles in young people’s lives with the structuring of their opportunities by class, race, gender, disability and place (Furlong, 2013).

‘Independence’ is socially and relationally configured

A fundamental aim of Youth Studies is to ‘publicly challenge’ constructions of youth which misrepresent structural disadvantage as a failure of individuals (Threadgold, 2020, p. 697), and this was a key motivation for my research.

My PhD explores transitions to independent living and broader questions around intergenerational relationships and young adults’ wellbeing. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have spoken in-depth with thirty-two young people (aged from 20 to 36) across diverse socioeconomic circumstances living with their parents in Leeds/Bradford (UK). I also interviewed thirteen parents to understand how familial values, resources, and support practices may shape young people’s experiences and trajectories.

To interrogate stereotypes surrounding the ‘failure’ to live independently, I needed to first consider the meaning of ‘youth’ itself. Youth Sociology and ‘transitions’ approaches view the period of youth and other life course stages as socially constructed and not reducible to chronological age-based markers of ‘adulthood’ (such as leaving home) (Roberts, 2018). If adulthood is normatively tied to independence, Threadgold (2020, p. 695) notes that youth is positioned in deficit terms as ‘… a state of ‘becoming’ … developing towards something better: being an adult’. My research also draws on the Life Course paradigm which emphasises how experiences and biographies are embedded in historical and spatial contexts and shaped by social relationships (Elder, 1994).

Thinking in this way turns the ‘failure to launch’ characterisation into a discussion about the social and economic conditions and relations that enable or constrain young people’s opportunities to live independently (see e.g., Irwin and Nilsen, 2018; Irwin, 1995).

Future housing (im)possibilities

My research is situated in a context whereby home-ownership is prized in housing policy, with the Conservative Government hoping to ‘turn Generation Rent into Generation Buy’ (Wilson et al., 2021, p. 3). Home-ownership also prevails as the ideal tenure of choice amongst the UK public (Corlett and Odamtten, 2021) – unsurprising given the insecurity and high costs associated with private-renting and the severe lack of social housing (Clapham et al., 2012).

Declines in youth home-ownership rates have been largely linked to financial factors (Corlett and Odamtten, 2021). However, in a now-removed Sunday Times article, Kirstie Allsopp (TV Presenter on Location, Location, Location) received backlash after reportedly commenting that young people could afford to become homeowners if they sacrificed their EasyJet, coffee, gym, and Netflix lifestyle or moved in with their parents to save every penny. Whether misquoted or not, the recent controversy surrounding this all too familiar narrative is a timely opportunity to advocate for young people through their lived experiences (Nanda, 2022).

Whilst most young adults in my study hoped to own a home, there were clear disparities in how possible this was. Twenty-eight-year-old graduate, Adam (all names are pseudonyms), lived with his mum and two brothers in private-rented accommodation:

‘I can’t afford to buy a house here… I’d have to earn twice as much as I do now… and as a family, we couldn’t really afford to rent [this house] unless all four of us were paying our equal share of rent, food, and bills. So, if I moved out, would my mum be able to carry on living here?’

The impossibility of affording a house deposit was felt by many participants (although with varying intensity). For some, renting was deemed the only option for independent living. Adam’s experience (like many others) also complicates the assumption that young people can save every penny at home. Like Adam, many paid an equal share of household expenses and parents could not afford otherwise. This is important given UK housing welfare cuts which reflect neo-liberal trends towards ‘the privatisation of care within the family home’ (Wilkinson and Ortega-Alcázar, 2017, p. 335), assuming parents can and should provide a housing ‘safety net’.

For an advantaged minority, parents had offered to help financially with moving out, although this was often met with discomfort: ‘mum had offered to do that, which I was not too keen on because I wanted to finally do something by myself’ (Erin, twenty-four).

Experiences are diverse and complex

Although many young people chose to live with their parents, ‘choices’ were often comprised of complex push and pull factors.

Twenty-three-year-old Eve was diagnosed with a chronic health condition at age-17 and has never moved out. Eve explained, ‘I went from “oh I could move away and go to University and do all of the things” to being very stressed … my diagnosis very much put a cap on things’. Living at home allowed Eve to become a self-employed Tutor. However, this income was not enough to move out. Eve also worried about her future: ‘I’m going to have to do more to make enough money to buy a house, and that worries me because I couldn’t manage a full-time job with my illness. It’s a bit confrontational trying to think about all that’.

Other reasons for staying and returning home included cultural norms, caring for disabled parents, leaving abusive relationships, mental health, graduating through Covid-19 lockdown, unaffordable housing costs, and saving money (not exhaustive or mutually exclusive). This diversity is reflected elsewhere (Hill et al., 2021) and challenges stereotypes with a multitude of intersecting social and personal factors which constrain normative independence.

Whilst oversimplified accounts have been rigorously contested by researchers, we still have relatively little evidence about the diverse, complex and situated experiences of young adults who live with their parents.

Opportunities for independence are unequal

No participants in my research had ‘failed to launch’; rather, they were faced with skyrocketing rents and house prices relative to earnings, insecure work, and endless waiting lists for social-rented housing. As twenty-two-year-old Hailey put it: ‘… we’re living in houses that have quadrupled in price, food costs have gone up, jobs want masses of experience when we are twenty. What more can we do?’

Whilst I have only presented a snapshot, my research challenges normative middle-class concepts of the family home as a place where all young people can rely on parental support. Crucially, socioeconomic and class inequalities in opportunities for independent living have widened (Berrington et al., 2017) and this has little to do with low aspiration.


Emma Hyde is a PhD Student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, and a member of The Centre for Research on Families, Life Course and Generations. Emma’s thesis focuses on inequalities in youth transitions to independence, with a specific interest in family relationships and wellbeing (supervised by Professor Sarah Irwin and Dr Daniel Edmiston).


References

Berrington, A., Duta, A. and Wakeling, P. 2017. Youth social citizenship and class inequalities in transitions to adulthood in the UK. Southampton.

Clapham, D., Mackie, P., Orford, S., Buckley, K. and Thomas, I. 2012. Housing Options and Solutions for Young People in 2020. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Corlett, A. and Odamtten, F. 2021. Hope to buy: The decline of youth home ownership. Resolution Foundation.

Elder, G.H., Jr. 1994. Time, human agency, and social change: perspectives on the life course. Social Psychology Quarterly. 57(1), p4.

Furlong, A. 2013. Youth studies: an introduction. Oxon UK/New York USA: Routledge.

Green, A. 2017. The Crisis for Young People: Generational Inequalities in Education, Work, Housing and Welfare. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hill, K., Hirsch, D., Stone, J. and Webber, R. 2020. Home Truths: Young adults living with their parents in low to middle income families. Edinburgh: Standard Life Foundation.

Hill, K., Webber, R. and Hirsch, D. 2021. Staying home and getting on: Tackling the challenges facing low to middle income families where young adults live with their parents. Edinburgh: abrdn Financial Fairness Trust.

Irwin, S. 1995. Rights of passage: social change and the transition from youth to adulthood. London: UCL Press.

Irwin, S. and Nilsen, A. 2018. Transitions to Adulthood Through Recession: Youth and Inequality in a European Comparative Perspective. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kins, E. and Beyers, W. 2010. Failure to Launch, Failure to Achieve Criteria for Adulthood? Journal of Adolescent Research. 25(5), pp.743-777.

Roberts, K. 2018. Youth research meets life course terminology: The transitions paradigm revisited. In: Irwin, S. and Nilsen, A. eds. Transitions to Adulthood Through Recession: Youth and Inequality in a European Comparative Perspective. Abingdon: Routledge.

Threadgold, S. 2020. Figures of youth: on the very object of Youth Studies. Journal of youth studies. 23(6), pp.1-16.

Wilkinson, E. and Ortega-Alcázar, I. 2017. A home of one’s own? Housing welfare for ‘young adults’ in times of austerity. Critical Social Policy. 37(3), pp.329-347.

Wilson, W., Cromarty, H., Seely, A. and Barton, C. 2021. Extending home ownership: Government initiatives. Commons Library Briefing, 30 March.

Media Sources

Hendriksen, E. 2019. Failure to Launch Syndrome. Scientific American. [Online]. 18 May. [Accessed 6 April 2022]. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/failure-to-launch-syndrome/#:~:text=But%20when%20young%20adults%20stay,almost%20sure%20to%20be%20grounded.

McLoughlin, B. 2022. Kirstie Allsopp’s property advice for young people sparks Twitter debate. Evening Standard. [Online]. 8 February. [Accessed 6 April 2022]. Available from: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/kirstie-allsopp-young-home-owner-property-house-b981193.html

Nanda, G. 2022. The Kirstie Allsopp controversy may have done us a favour. Inside Housing. [Online]. 9 March. [Accessed 6 April 2022]. Available from: https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/comment/comment/the-kirstie-allsopp-controversy-may-have-done-us-a-favour-74601