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Thursday, 12 April 2012 21:36

Back Home Again: Young Adults’ Transition to Independence

There has been a fair amount of coverage in the news of the growing numbers of college graduates who find it necessary to move back in with their parents. Many factors contribute to this new pattern. There is the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the unprecedented debt with which recent graduates are now often burdened. There is the unhealthy economic climate that has gripped our country for several years now. Jobs are hard to get. Salaries are falling. Economic disparities are increasing. Home ownership is more of a challenge than ever, putting increased pressure on the rental market. Questions about the adequacy of college preparation for the changing demands of the American workplace also loom. One may even step back and regard the environmental threats, wars, and cultural trends shaping the society into which enter our newly minted college graduates as factors contributing to their need or decision to move back home.

No doubt for many parents and many young adult children, this new living dynamic is stressful and even painful. There are two thoughts, however, that can be of help to families trying to find a way to adjust to these new circumstances.

First, there is a tendency to look upon the experience one had when one was younger as “the way it’s always been.” The fact is: that’s just not true. I’d venture to assert there has never been a “way” it’s always been. The cultural environment confronting new college grads has changed constantly from generation to generation just as has the collegiate context that was intended to prepare them for this event.

Those who went to the University before World War II and those who did not had a different economic world to enter than the one we face today. Those who went to school on the G.I. bill faced yet another economic world, as did students who went to college on Sputnik inspired scholarships, as did students who protested the Viet Nam War in the late 60’s and faced independence in the early 70’s. In that same time frame, it is relevant that cultural attitudes and the law of the land have changed dramatically with regard to people of different races, genders, physical disabilities, age-related issues, religious affiliations and sexual orientations. Similarly, the family experience of the 1920’s was not the same as that of the 1930’s, the 1940’s, the 1950’s, the 1960’s…you get the picture.

When we step back and look at this picture, the point is, changes in patterns of how people survive with shelter, health, food and an optimum standard of living are never ending. One way to cope with the current changes we are experiencing is to recognize that having to cope is actually normal. Rather than look backward with a romanticized view of our own past that casts regret on our present reality, we can greet our current time as an adventure just as life has always been an adventure with new, unexpected conditions influencing the creativity with which we meet the future.

The second thought is that, even though wars, boom and bust cycles, and cycles of economic disparity constantly reshape society into a new and challenging environment each generation must navigate, still, we are making progress. Our progress is not in stopping these recurring cycles of disruption, but in developing tools for creatively adapting to and making the most of the disruption. One example of such progress is the tools for communication that have been developed through the mediation and negotiation movement that has now been going on for nearly forty years.

In one sense, this movement is very low-tech in that it is a movement based on direct human interactions that involve the transfer of information from mouth to ear, not satellite to satellite. But in another sense, this movement is every bit as sophisticated as the technological revolution we have witnessed during this timeframe. It is one thing to have a sophisticated toy or tool. It is another to be a sophisticated human being who knows how to hold multiple apparently conflicting perspectives as legitimately true from a certain vantage and knows how to empathize with that vantage while still being able to identify, own and assert one’s most important needs. And as sophisticated as we have become in resolving disputes with the knowledge of effective communication that have been gained through programs such as Harvard’s Negotiation Project, we still have yet to make full use of this knowledge in a proactive sense to honor our most important relationships with constructive participation in the planning of our pursuit of happiness.

As families facing a new economic reality, new patterns of living together, and new paths to independence ahead of us, we have the opportunity to employ the mediation model as a means for navigating challenging conversations about each others’ needs in this challenging context. In my practice, I am excited by this opportunity to explore the value of mediation in this context and to be a part of families’ efforts to support each other’s pursuit of happiness with trailblazing creativity in the transition to independence of their young adults.