Aspiring Adults Adrift

In 2011, sociology professors Richard Arum from New York University and Josipa Roksa fromthe University of Virginia published a book titled, “Academically Adrift.” In it, they share theirresearch of more than 2,000 students from a wide breadth of higher education, including Ivyleague schools and local community colleges. Their overall consensus was that bothacademia and students alike seem to be drifting with no sense of purpose. They argued thatmany students did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning after four years inschool. Arum and Roksa called for institutions to impose more rigorous academic standards,tailor curriculum to real jobs, and nurture students in critical thinking and complex reasoning.1

Their latest book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” published a few months ago, takes a fresh look atthe students covered in their original study. Where are they now? Are they financiallyindependent? Was the cost of their college education worth it?2

Here are some key findings from their survey:

  • Two years after college graduation, 71 percent of the students were still receivingfinancial help from their parents.
  • 24 percent of the grads had moved back in with mom and dad.
  • A quarter of all the grads were unemployed or underemployed.
  • Less than half of the graduates (47 percent) had full-time jobs paying $40,000 or morea year.
  • The researchers noted that a lot of parents are not getting their money’s worth. Not onlybecause of the high cost of college, but because their adult children have failed to make thatimportant transition to adulthood after they graduate.

A National Epidemic

Financial advisors like myself are seeing the impact this is having on our clients. Parents facean emotional and a financial challenge when children fail to launch out of the nest. “We’vehad a game-plan for years,” notes one couple whose son and daughter-in-law recently movedinto their basement. “This was going to be our time to quit working, lock up the house, andhave the freedom to travel and visit relatives. Now we’ve got two extra mouths to feed, wemay delay retirement, and we stress whether we are helping or enabling our kids.”

Parents want to be a safety net for their children. But at the same time they want their help tobe a temporary stepping-stone to a more successful life. Their biggest fear is that the morethey give, the harder it becomes for Junior to launch from the nest.

Debunking the advice to “Find your Passion!”

Researchers Arum and Roksa say that althoughthere are certainly exceptions, Generation Y as awhole has an inflated sense of self-esteem thatclashes unpleasantly with the harsh realities of themodern world. Kids grow up believing that they’respecial, talented and can be anything they want tobe. When that doesn’t always pan out, they easilyfall into chronic disappointment and despair. Inessence, say Arum and Roksa, “The idea seemsto be that if they can’t have exactly what theywant, there is little point in trying. Theseyoungsters simply give up.”

But while many fall to the curse of entitlement, others are eager to live independently. They learn how to balance entry level pay with the high cost of living and debt repayment. They live with roommates, postpone getting the latest technology and devices, and pare their lifestyle to the bare essentials.

Here are several habits that financially successful young people share:

  • They know how to work.
  • They feel responsible for their own support.
  • They recognize the difference between “needs” and “wants”
  • They pay off credit cards each month and avoid consumer debt
  • They are savvy at buying used cars, used clothing, used electronics
  • They use technology to help them track their spending and create budgets
  • They set aside money for emergencies
  • They take on second jobs if needed for extra income
  • Optimism is widespread

If there is a positive note to come from all this research, it is that Generation Y feels optimistic about their future, despite the circumstances they are in currently. “They believe things will work out, even if they don’t have plans for how that will happen,” say authors Arum and Roksa. “They are also convinced that their lives will be as good as those of their parents, if not better.”

I certainly believe in positive thinking, but I also know that each of us has a responsibility to help young adults within our circle of influence to learn to fly. They need to foster independence not only for themselves, but because they represent our future and the future of our country as well.


1) “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arumand Josipa Roksa, published by University of Chicago Press, January 2011.

2) “Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tenative Transitions of College Graduates” by RichardArum and Josipa Roksa, published by University of Chicago Press, September