The Failure to Launch Phenomenon

yellow and red leaves on branches

Failure to Launch is not an official diagnosis but is becoming commonplace terminology to describe a young adult struggling to transition out of the family home and into adulthood. Why and how has failure to launch become a phenomenon?

Failure to Launch by the Numbers

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study about 36% of adults ages 18-31 live at home with their parents and the rate can be as high as 45% for states like New Jersey (Time 2018).  Other sources indicate that about 50% of this age group struggle with undiagnosed mental health issues.

Compounding Factors

These problems can be further complicated with substance use issues or a dysfunctional family system. The failure to launch isn’t merely failing to leave the family home but includes failure to complete school, find employment, sustain relationships etc. With all that experienced negativity combined with the social media pressure to be well and do well and show the world you are “doing great”, it is no wonder why these young adults struggle with depression and anxiety as well as more complex mental health issues.

Theories on the Why and How Behind Failure to Launch

How did it all start?  Well there are a lot of theories but an interesting 2016 article in Psychology Today put forth author David Lancy’s theory. Lancy is the author of The Anthropology of Childhood, which the NYTimes named as the “best parenting book.” Lancy believes that much of where we are today is due to putting our kids first and essentially doing just too much for them. As a result, they are delayed in learning to do things for themselves to gain the life skills and maturation earlier generations learned from being more on their own to figure life out.

This is a very intriguing theory that makes a lot of sense to me. Speaking as a parent of a dual-income household, striving to be and do more as a woman in the business world led me to work what felt like twice as hard as my male counterparts. The side effect of that however, was that when I became a mom, I got hit with an overwhelming sense of guilt of “not being available” for my infant son. Thus I made sure the nanny was there and all needs were met, activities were scheduled and not a minute went by where my child wasn’t entertained. Who knew all that love and attention had the potential to backfire?

But is that it, the why and wherefore?  Not by a long shot. The confluence of many streams lead to a spike in this “syndrome” as it is being labeled. Here are six of the contributing factors mentioned regularly:

1. Millennial Mindset

A good friend of mine who is at the higher end of this generation got frustrated hearing complaints about young folks today not being loyal, coming across as lazy  and too quick to quit a job and move on. She shared her perspective, which was that her generation and those younger saw and lived what happened to their parents and where their loyalty got them laid off, pensions absconded with, abused. This generation watched that go down and learned that their personal wellness was worth more than corporate wellness and that if they didn’t like what they were asked to do they can just move on. Is this shortsighted or is it courageous?There is an excellent YouTube video by motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek that describes this generation and their work mindset very clearly. Sinek very much attributes the Millennial outlook and approach to life as a function of how they were raised and a determination not to be like their parents. Sound familiar? It very much comes across as an entitled approach to life but listen closely, there is much more to it.

2. Technology and a Fast-Paced World

Another obvious influencer. How have things changed?  I am reminded of hearing stories from my grandfather and father about how far they had to walk to school, the depth of the snow etc, and my rolling my eyes. Well I find myself doing it too!  I am trying to explain to my son what it was like writing a paper and having to go to the library and use the card catalog only to find the book has been checked out. Of stories about essentially being kicked out of the house in the summer, told to “go play” and not to come back until the porch light was lit signaling it was time for dinner.  The world has changed and will continue to change, and it is all about getting faster. There is less time to think, bigger and faster expectations – less patience for everything especially change and growth. Layer on technology that is the primary culprit as to why things have sped up and we are led to another new pressure older generations never had to worry about… social media.

3. Social Media

Many people enjoy catching up with friends long lost and sharing photos of family and watching others live life, but admittedly, it can put an unseen pressure on you to have something to say and show the world how great you’re doing. Imagine how that makes a struggling, insecure young adult feel. And what about the occasional angsty posts we all want to put out there when utterly frustrated but have the judgment and forethought to hold back.  Well the young adult brain generally doesn’t make that distinction well. Then the post is out there and the comments start flying —some are supportive but they breeze over them because it’s the cruel ones that take seed. Then there is the science of addiction, which tells us that use of a device and the receipt of “Likes” actually spikes the dopamine levels in our brain much like sugar and cocaine, which starts the never-ending cycle of wanting more.  Well now you have a young adult, child even, stuck to their phone just to feel normal shirking true human connections for the virtual kind.  That’s a whole topic in and of itself but for now it should help explain why these failure-to-launch (FTL) adults end up isolated and stuck on their devices. So now they are lonely and on their phone/laptop watching the world go by and feeling left behind.  For many that boredom, that disconnect, that sadness leads to the need to escape and for a growing number of folks that escape is found through substances, predominately marijuana.

4. Push to Legalize Marijuana

I won’t beat this one to death as I blogged about it a few months ago but the push to legalize marijuana and the massive press efforts for the same have truly lead the youth and the world to thinking it’s just no big deal. But it is, especially for the young adult whose brain is still developing. Among  other effects, science has shown that marijuana is a de-motivator, which is the absolute last thing someone hiding away feeling lost and alone needs — a nap to avoid engaging with life.

5. College Grad Glut and Debt Effect

It’s a fact that year after year more and more folks go to college than ever before. There are fewer manual labor jobs due to modernization and less expensive alternatives. There are fewer of certain high paying jobs.  It’s straight supply and demand and we are in an oversupply for educated labor in certain sectors. So you have a college graduate (if they get that far) watching the grads before them struggle to find work and settling for a job as a barista. Saddled with tons of debt and with not much light on the horizon, they are feeling beaten and stuck and in some cases lied to. Because everything isn’t alright it’s downright scary and the young brain wants to hide when it’s scared. It may be hiding behind a device or a substance or by simply withdrawing from others. But that doesn’t make anything better, in fact it just makes them worse.

6. Affordable Care Act 2010

Lastly but not least, we have the ACA. This initiative allowed young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 (vs 19 before). This was intended to be a fall back but has become the norm, which further adds to a sense there is no urgency to find adequate employment with benefits.

Failure to Launch Residential Treatment Program

Lancy and other experts in the field see ‘unlearning’ helplessness and hopelessness as the key to helping (versus enabling) young adults. We recently wrote about how our Work Program provides the structure to help residents suffering from failure to launch and other challenges progress on their journey to wellness. Learning to work toward wellness in a community with boundaries for device use and accountability as the norm is a tradition at Spring Lake Ranch Therapeutic Community.

Learn more about our failure to launch residential treatment program.

Additional Resources

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? – The Atlantic

Move Over Millennials, Here Comes iGen’ .. Or Maybe Not – NPR

Help! My Adult Kid Has ‘Failed to Launch’ – AARP

CARF Accredited: Spring Lake Ranch programs are CARF accredited. The CARF accreditation signals our commitment to continually improving services, encouraging feedback, and serving the community.

Spring Lake Ranch is a member of the American Residential Treatment Association (ARTA). ARTA members are dedicated to providing extraordinary care to adults with mental illness.