Young men are experiencing quarter-life crises at an alarming rate. Men are struggling to graduate college, step into the workforce, step into independent adulthood, and deal with adversity and setbacks in life.
But what is behind this epidemic of failure to launch guys? Psych Bytes presents a multi-part series exploring the changing landscape of the teenage and young adult years and the impact it is having on young men.
Failure to Launch Syndrome: The Mental Health Crisis
This week my oldest child started high school. This milestone in our lives has me reminiscing about my own childhood and how much growing up and parenting has changed over the course of my lifetime.
My kids never experienced nap time in elementary school. I had nap time in kindergarten. Naptime was glorious. I remember first getting homework sometime in middle school.
I don’t remember exactly when my two kids first received homework. But my youngest started the sixth grade this week and has had homework for several years now. The unstructured free time during childhood was glorious.
I also don’t remember struggling much with depression, anxiety, or stress during my teen and young adult years. A lot has changed with regards to mental health over the course of my lifetime.
Failure to Launch and Mental Health Go Hand-in-Hand
Americans are stressed. The anxiety outbreak has impacted all demographics in our culture. And I am convinced that mental health has been a major contributor to creating a “Failure to Launch” generation.
Failure to Launch Syndrome (or FTL) is a phrase that describes a young person who is having an increasingly difficult time maturing and transitioning into the next stage of development; adulthood.
This period of life involves greater independence and responsibilities. It also requires depending less on parents and other adults to complete tasks and manage daily living.
Some of the common signs of Failure to Launch Syndrome are:
- Deflecting responsibility for their actions
- A Little motivation for activities that pertain to school and full-time work
- Poor work ethic towards individual responsibilities
- Little persistence or consistency in working towards what goals they may have set
- Difficulty keeping the grades to stay in college or can’t hold a steady job
Most families that find themselves in this position are not happy with it. These situations often leave young men feeling ashamed and isolated while their parents are often criticized for being weak and overindulgent.
Although it is not an official medical condition, I am convinced that mental well-being is instrumental in launching into adulthood, and consequently, a mental health crisis has greatly contributed to a generation of lost boys.
Why Are Young Men Failing to Launch?
How did things get to this point where more young men are living at their parents’ home at any time since the 1940s with a large number of guys showing no desire to move out and launch into independent adulthood?
Let’s look at a few trends I believe have greatly contributed to our current predicament.
The World is Stressful, and People are Too Knowledgeable About it
It is a stressful time to be a parent. In the past twenty years, parents have been raising children in the era of Columbine High School shooting, 9/11, the Iraqi War, Hurricane Katrina, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and other domestic and world events that note how much the world has changed since they were children.
The message bombarding adults is “the world is not a safe place.” This has greatly contributed to anxious adults and anxious parenting.
For the past ten years, parents have also been massively affected by the First Great Recession of the 21st Century. The 2008–10 financial crisis and the global recession it created economic uncertainty for families and their children.
Finally, with the advent of the smartphone, social media, and twenty-four-hours, around the clock news cycles have only fanned the fearful flames.
Endless stories about terrorism, bullying, suicide, and other upsetting topics reinforce parents’ beliefs that the world is scary, uncertain, and super competitive. And parents have been downloading their anxieties into their kids.
But are all these fears rational? How much of today’s worries are exaggerated and how many points to legitimate concerns? Dr. Dave Verhaagen is a licensed psychologist and author of Parenting the Millennial Generation: Guiding Our Children Born between 1982 and 2000.
Dr. Verhaagen has written about how most parental fears and worries are exaggerated when compared to facts and statistics.
He points to data that shows that violent crime, youth crime, and murder rates have all been steadily declining. But try telling today’s parents that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
The World of Parenting is Stressful
What is a parent to do when they believe the world is a scary and unsafe place? They tend to over-protect and over-parent. They prevent their children from experiencing scary situations and minimize the growth that occurs when dealing with adversity, challenges, and disappointment.
Their love is real and their intentions are noble. But is this approach to parenting in the best interest for anybody?
America has become a child-centric culture. The parenting paradigm has been turned upside down. Many parents struggle to find purpose, meaning, and identity outside of their kids and parenting responsibilities.
Their own happiness is largely dependent on their kid’s happiness. Their well-being is largely depending on their kid’s well-being. Parents are also under the immense pressure of feeling judged, criticized or given parenting advice.
David Lancy is a professor emeritus at Utah State University. He is the author of The Anthropology of Childhood, a book The New York Times praised as the best parenting book one could read.
In an interview for Psychology Today, Lancy noted that in most societies around the world, kids are on the bottom of the social ladder of importance. This is heavily contrasted with American culture, where kids’ needs and desires are put first, above parents and adults.
A part of this shift is a consequence of the changing landscape of family. Having children has become a larger economic decision rather than a biological or familial decision.
Financial stability and stage of life have become greater variables in the decision to have children. People are getting married later in life, having children later in life, and having fewer children. These changes have placed greater pressure on both parents and the kids.
Kids Are Stressed and Anxious
Teenagers are the most stressed-out age group in the U.S. Roughly 30% of girls and about 20% of boys – totaling 6.3 million teens – have an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. Teens are also struggling with record levels of depression.
A study of national trends in depression among adolescents and young adults found close to 12 percent of teens reported experiencing a “major depressive episode” (MDE) in the previous 12 months.
That’s 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 and a 37 percent increase from rates ten years ago. More than 2 million reports experiencing depression that impairs their daily function.
This generation of young folks has grown up in an era of “instant gratification.” This has led to a decrease in what therapists call “frustration tolerance” and how we handle upsetting situations. And yet, only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it, and only 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.
“Young men experiencing Failure to Launch have a difficult time maturing into adulthood.”
And then there is the issue of self-harm and suicide. Self-harm is certainly not universal among kids with depression and anxiety, but it does appear to be the signature symptom of this generation’s mental health difficulties.
While girls appear more likely to engage in this behavior, boys are not immune: as many as 30% to 40% of those who’ve ever self-injured are male. And 75 percent of all completed suicides are males.
Add into the equation that the suicide rates for adolescent boys and girls have been steadily rising since 2007, and it’s hard not to suspect a connection with struggling young men and mental well-being.
Kids Have Become Entitled
So the world is scary, parenting is hard, and young folks are experiencing record levels of mental illness. But what about young people and their own outlook on the world and their lives?
Today’s young folks have a pretty high view of themselves. Self-reported rates of narcissism are skyrocketing. We’re seeing some of the highest rates in the last 50 years.
Narcissism refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others. People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so.
The youth entitlement epidemic begs the question – is part of the problem young guys face is having unrealistic expectations and ideas about life? Do they have high aspirations for life but lack the necessary skills and discipline to achieve their lofty goals?
The Response: Reactions to the Stressed, Struggling Boy
Dr. Verhaagen recently wrote about the importance of failure in a child’s development. Many parents do not let their children fail and therefore shield them from the consequences of failure.
Dr. Verhaagen points to three key reasons why it is important for kids to experience failure:
1. You learn natural consequences when you fail
2. You learn important life skills when you fail
3. You become emotionally stronger when you fail
Kids have been given the message that their success is more important than anything else. It has hijacked their critical thinking, their mindset, and their moral development. Many young men are fearful of failure, deflect responsibility, and have the minimal skill set to navigate the real-world demands of adulthood.
Lancy remarked in his Psychology Today interview how in generations past, “parents had the attitude that as long as the kids are healthy and decently put together and seem to be OK, leave them alone, they’re fine, they’ll turn out just fine. Turning out just fine is not a satisfactory objective for middle and upper-middle-class parents today. The kids have to be optimized. They must achieve everything they’re capable of achieving.” This parenting shift has resulted in what he coined “enforced emotional retardation.”
Guys Refuse Help From Others
Although the stigma towards therapy and counseling continues to erode, many dudes still struggle with the idea of opening up about their problems to a trained professional (or anyone for that matter). For many young men, asking and accepting help from others is a major hurdle.
Masculine stereotypes promote that real men don’t have problems, real men don’t talk about their problems, and real men solve their own problems. A man’s masculinity is often called into question (in subtle or unsubtle ways) the more they open up and talk about their feelings and problems.
So what do a lot of guys do instead? In my experience working with men in therapy, many guys posture and hide their pain or any intense emotion they interpret as sadness.
This means by the time young guys reach out for help and address their struggles, the problems are more severe than if there had been earlier interventions.
Guys Avoid and Distract – Rather than Address the Problems
Guess what are the two most common variables I find in the work I do with Failure to Launch dudes? Excessive gaming and marijuana use. What do those two things have in common? They both are a form of escapism and distraction.
Recreational weed is not helping this generation of guys launch. I have previously written about the concerning rise of marijuana use among today’s teens. Some of the biggest takeaways from my article on teen marijuana use is:
- Marijuana use can disrupt the normal and healthy developing brain
- Marijuana use can contribute or exacerbate mental health struggles during this period
- Earlier exposure to marijuana use increases the risk for abuse, addiction, and cognitive decline
And marijuana use — whether lifetime, past year or current — is most common among males. Teen boys are less likely to see marijuana as risky and more likely to succumb to peer pressure when it comes to smoking marijuana.
The higher rate of marijuana use among males and females grows as they get older, meaning the rate of females smoking marijuana into adulthood drops while men continue or increase use rates.
Gaming and tech are not helping this generation of guys who have failed to launch. For young women, their excessive tech use often is directed at social media and being plastered to their smartphone.
For guys, they tend to isolate themselves and distract themselves for days and weeks playing video games or watching TV. The average teen spends more than 63 hours a week in front of a screen.
Because of multitasking, teens pack over 11 hours’ worth of media content into their 9 hours of daily screen time. If a guy is not in class or working, guess what he’s probably doing? Playing video games.
Although it is a newer phenomenon that needs more rigorous study, gaming addiction is a real threat to this generation of adolescent boys and young men.
Young Guys Heading to College Are at Risk For a Mental Health Crisis
I have previously written about the stress plaguing our college-aged folks. The national consensus among educators and health professionals is that we are facing a mental health crisis on our college campuses.
Psychology Today published data supporting the concern for college students, which highlighted worrisome statistics. Almost half of the college students had a psychiatric disorder in the past year and 73 percent of students will experience some sort of mental health crisis during college.
“What are parents supposed to do if their child has failed to launch?”
More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students.
More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts, and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide. Eighty to ninety percent of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from college counseling centers. Mental health struggles and Failure to Launch Syndrome go hand-in-hand!
The Results: A Generation of Avoiders and Isolators
Young adults are becoming adept at “avoiding” thinking about the future. An “avoider” uses a defense mechanism to put off tomorrow what needs to be done today.
He games himself into thinking that all will be fine — tomorrow. He may smoke marijuana to reduce the anxiety, fill his time gaming, and only connect with others online or through social media.
Avoidant behavior is a strategy for failure. Over time, avoiders doubt if they really can make it on their own, take risks or individuate in the increasingly competitive society.
And what is a parent to do? By this point, the fear of failure has resulted in over-involved parenting and created furious accommodators. They are furious both in the magnitude of accommodating their children and the growing resentment toward their child.
Parents resent that their young adults feel it is their right to launch at their own leisure and timetable. And the young adult’s entitlement fuels the expectation that their parents should continue to finance their stalled lifestyle until “adulting” becomes more appealing and necessary.
Avoiders, isolators, and accommodators … What are young guys and their parents supposed to do?