Parents’ Dilemma: Kids Who Don’t Launch

Mobile Share Email Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Karen James and John Kingrey remember very clearly breaking the news to their Millennial son that they would no longer support him.

After struggling through his first year in college, Michael was sitting on his parents’ bed tossing around whether or not he should join the U.S. Navy. “I said, ‘You don’t have to join the Navy, but you’re not living here. And winter’s coming,’ ” Karen James recalled.

And then she thought, but did not say, what many parents before her have thought about the offspring they love:  “You’re not living here doing nothing.”

Easing their son out the door in the run-up to the couple’s 2014 retirement “was one of the toughest things we ever did,” John Kingrey said. Their son’s story had a happy ending.

But more parents than ever are being torn between supporting adult children who haven’t yet launched and getting ready for their own fast-approaching retirement. Record numbers of 18- to 34-year-olds are living with their parents, a result of later marriages and a tough job market for that age group.

I am not a parent and am unqualified to write this blog from their perspective. But as a cold financial calculation, supporting a 20-something is problematic for older parents at a time that nearly half of U.S. baby boomers are at risk that their standard of living will decline after they retire.

With little time left to prepare, the most effective thing people in their 50s or early 60s can do is plan on delaying retirement, which sharply increases the size of a monthly Social Security check. But paying down a mortgage faster or putting more money into a 401(k) retirement plan is also a good idea.

“You shouldn’t be helping them if you want to put more money into your retirement,” says Minnesota financial planner Mark Zoril. But he’s quick to add that getting tough on offspring isn’t easy for parents – or their advisers. “It’s a pretty difficult [conversation] to have with your client.”

For one thing, many parents enjoy having grown children around the house. For some families, it can make financial sense to have a multigenerational household if the adult offspring pay rent.

Rather than expecting children to suddenly launch, Tim Maurer, a South Carolina financial adviser and speaker, suggests parents encourage them to slowly become airborne by introducing them “to the broader reality of life.”

If the Millennial has a job, even a low-paying one, first require they pay for their cell phone, which is relatively inexpensive. Next might be the car insurance, perhaps a car payment, and finally rent. If they live at home more than a year, he said, the rent should go up quite a bit.

The alternative? “When we allow that pattern of them continuing to rely on us financially, we’re creating a codependent relationship,” he said. This codependency can also come back to haunt offspring if they have to support elderly parents financially, he said.

Zoril said these issues can’t be divorced from the larger one: many baby boomers aren’t yet thinking very hard about what retirement will be like. Indeed, one study shows that parents, rather than save, actually spend more money after their kids leave the roost, creating a more expensive lifestyle that will be even harder to maintain in retirement. Kids who fail to launch, Zoril said, are just “a distraction.”

The ultimatum that the now-retired Minnesota parents gave their son had its hoped-for effect on him. Michael spent two years in the Navy, which made his father, a former career Army JAG officer, proud. He then finished college and an MBA, and now, at age 30, has a real job with benefits at a major U.S. corporation.

To stay current on our Squared Away blog, we invite you to join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.      

Ken Pidcock

Raise your children to be good people and don’t despair that their adult trajectory doesn’t immediately correspond to what you’d imagined for them.


The old verse still holds true – “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It’s not only millennials this ever applied to. In 1974 (I was 19; my parents were 54), after unsuccessfully struggling through my first year in college, my (in hindsight, very wise) parents gave me the ultimatum – “Go to school full-time (with passing grades), get a full-time job, or move out.” I followed my father’s and older siblings’ path and joined the Air Force, and a few years later successfully completed multiple college degrees.

Now, 42 years later, I’m retired (with young grandkids now) and would give that same advice (“The Ultimatum”) for today’s parents to their kids who won’t launch.


    Hi, Brian. Same year, eerily similar story (Navy for me, 2 ‘quarters’ of college). Dad gave me the talk on my 19th birthday. Living the good life with my wife of over 30 years. We have two kids who are very successful – no talk required. I remember how Mom used to love to tell us the story about how the mother bird will lovingly push her babies out of the nest so everyone can get on with their lives!


Despite having a college degree and being a hard worker, my daughter could only find low-paying part-time jobs. She just started a stint with AmeriCorps, and is very happy with it. There is no salary, but the “stipend” she receives for living expenses is more than what her part-time jobs were paying. But better than the money, she is getting solid experience. And best of all, she has found her calling. She now knows she wants to be a teacher, and the AmeriCorps scholarship will help her get an education degree to make that a reality. I very much recommend looking into AmeriCorps if you’ve got a millennial at home who’s not sure what to do with their life.


    I have worked with Americorps fighting wildland fires in the Pacific northwest. They have a great program, their young adults come ready to work, and they provide excellent training and life skills for their participants. I highly recommend that young adults who can’t find meaningful work give them a look.


It would be useful to discuss, in a separate article, the issue of children who will never launch due to disability.

Rather meager governmental assistance for such disabled adults means that their financial contribution to a household of ageing parents will generally be quite small.

And yet many, due to disability and the quite low levels of governmental assistance will never be able to live as a separate household.

    Dave Parker

    Caring for children with a serious disability is a huge topic, with planning for their future care often being the most significant aspect. Each family must assess their own needs and resources and simply do the best they can to make the necessary trade-offs. There is a vast amount of (mostly relevant) information available and a large number of attorneys and financial planners who specialize in these issues. A simple google search will turn up a host of starting points.

Comments are closed.