WSU News

Financial support for young adults can strengthen family ties

PULLMAN, Wash. — When parents support their children financially well past the point that they themselves became financially independent, the resulting parent-child relationship is:
  1. Fraught with tension and resentment.
  2. Detrimental to the child’s leap into adulthood.
  3. Closer and more loving than before.

While individual results may vary, Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, a sociologist at Washington State University, has looked hard at the data from more than 11,000 surveys of young people ages 18 to 34 and says the answer is a qualified C.
“What parents are doing today is different than what parents were doing 20 or 30 years ago,” she said. Baby Boomers might remember putting themselves through college, or supporting themselves with their first full-time job, but that isn’t the world their children have inherited.
“In the aggregate, these are the investing years,” Johnson said. “We used to say the investing years were 0 to 18, but now the investing years stretch into the 20s. We don’t have a society where 18-year-olds can leave home and be very successful on their own.”
Johnson, who has an on-going interest in income inequality and how families preserve wealth from one generation to the next, said that for parents who can afford it, providing ongoing financial support often strengthens parent-child bonds.
In a paper she delivered this spring at the Population Association of America meetings in San Francisco, Johnson writes, “Continued support may bring parents and children closer as it reassures the adult child that the parents are ‘there’ for them during this transitional period.”
Johnson’s research is based on data gleaned from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study began tracking students in grades 7-12 in 1995 and the most recent surveys were conducted in 2008.
While the outcomes seem mostly positive for an adult child’s self esteem, Johnson did find one caveat in the data. Young people in their 20’s who had stepped into adulthood—those who had left school, were married, or had fulltime employment—were at slightly higher risk of depression if they were receiving financial assistance from parents.
Because the higher rate of depression didn’t affect young people who were students, unmarried or working part-time, nor did it affect young people who were married but not financially dependent on their parents, it appears that the relationship is causal, Johnson said. “There’s a sense that they are adults and they should be able to support themselves, but they can’t,” she said.
In related research published in “Early Adulthood in a Family Context,” a report of the National Symposium on Family Issues, Johnson writes that young adults who grow up in economically advantaged households tend to perceive themselves as more successful, in part because their parents continue to provide financial support during the transition years.
Johnson’s research at WSU focuses on the dynamics of social inequality that affect a young person’s opportunities for educational attainment and career advancement as they transition to adulthood. She is primarily concerned with what young people desire and plan for their lives, how that is shaped by social structure and experience over the life course, and how inequalities are reproduced or interrupted in these processes.