A lot of ink has been spilled about how young people today are struggling to transition from adolescence to adulthood. But these think pieces are often heavy on blame and light on solutions. My guest today takes an understanding approach to the difficulties of growing up, as well as offers practical strategies for facilitating the process. His name is Mark McConville, and he’s a family clinical psychologist who’s spent decades working with young clients and written a book on what he’s found does and doesn’t work in getting them to become more independent called Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up . . . and What to Do About It.
We begin our conversation with how Mark defines a failure to launch, when in his career he started to notice this issue in his young clients, and what factors are behind its prevalence. He then explains the idea of “emerging adulthood” and how it’s normal for it to take some time for a twenty-something to start feeling like a grown-up. Mark and I then unpack the three tasks a young person must master to transition to adulthood, which includes discussions of what prevents twenty-somethings from taking on grown-up responsibilities, how parents need to shift from a supervisory role to a consultant role, the importance of getting going in the right direction, and why young adults should treat life like a climbing wall. We end our conversation with advice to parents on the best way to motivate their kids to tackle the tasks of growing up.
Plenty of insights for both young adults and their parents in this episode.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What does “failure to launch” truly mean?
- Why are young people having a harder time transitioning to adulthood?
- What’s going on in the brain in the transition to adulthood
- The 3 tasks a young adult needs to master to become an adult
- Why the idea of responsibility encompasses more than you may initially think
- Normalizing the acquisition of life skills
- What parents of younger children can do to teach responsibility
- Moving from authority to consultant as a parent
- The false narrative of needing to have a perfect plan
- How to motivate your teen and adult children
- Why “tough love” is overrated
- Should parents give financial support to adult children?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 10 Things I Would Do If I Were Twenty-One
- Don’t Waste Your Twenties Part I
- Don’t Waste Your Twenties Part II
- The Defining Decade
- The Unexpected Upsides of Being a Late Bloomer
- The Seasons of Man’s Life: Early Adulthood
- How to Avoid a 3-Car Pile-Up in Your 30s
- The Surprising Benefits of Marrying Young
- Good News! Your Life Isn’t Limitless
- Jeffrey Arnett and his book Emerging Adulthood
- 15 Maxims for Being a Reliable Man
- AoM’s “Heading Out On Your Own” Series
- How to Get Your Kids to Do Chores
Connect With Mark
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. And welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, a lot of ink has been spilled about how young people today are struggling to transition from adolescence to adulthood. But these think pieces are often heavy on blame and light on solutions. My guest today takes an understanding approach to the difficulties of growing up as well as offers practical strategies for facilitating the process. He’s Mark McConville, he’s a family clinical psychologist who spent decades working with young clients, and he’s written a book on what he’s found does and doesn’t work in getting them to become more independent. It’s called “Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up… And What to Do About it.” We begin our conversation with how Mark defines a failure to launch, when in his career he started to notice the issue in his young clients, and what factors are behind its prevalence today.
He then explains the idea of emerging adulthood, how it’s normal for it to take some time for a 20-something to start feeling like a grown up. Mark and I then unpack the three tasks a young person must master to transition to adulthood, which includes a discussion of what prevents 20-somethings from taking on grown up responsibilities, how parents need to shift from a supervisory role to a consultant role, the importance of getting going in the right direction and why young adults should treat life like climbing a wall. We end our conversation with advice to parents on the best way to motivate their kids to tackle the task of growing up. There’s plenty of insights for both young adults and their parents in this episode. After it’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/launch.
Alright, Mark McConville, welcome to the show.
Mark McConville: Well, thank you, it’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a clinical psychologist, you got a new book out, Failure to Launch: Why You’re Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up… And What to Do About it. This a book geared towards parents who have young adults who are having that hard time transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, but I think it could be read by a young person who recognizes they’re having a problem. Before we get into the content of your book, let’s talk about, let’s do definitions first. How do you define in your practice and in the book, failure to launch?
Mark McConville: Well, there’s a stage of emerging adulthood, as defined by the primary researchers in the field, ages between, say, 18 and 23 or 24, when your real task is to move beyond the structured adult oversight of the world of high school where parents and adults set the agenda, they created the curriculum not only academically, but developmentally, and you’re stepping out beyond that. And so now it falls on your shoulders to figure out, “Where am I headed? I’m not an adult yet, but I need to be doing something to launch myself in that direction.” And the kids that I’m talking about, that we sometimes think of them as 22 or 23 going on 16, because the kind of behavior patterns that they’re exhibiting would be normative for say a 16-year-old who’s maybe wrestling a little bit with growing up. But at age 20, 22, 23, 24, they’re really starting to appear as problematic.
Brett McKay: And a failure to launch doesn’t necessarily mean like, I mean, you could still be living with your parents and you’re making that transition. Basically it means that, it’s an attitude you’re taking towards your life, you’re taking responsibility for your own life.
Mark McConville: Yeah, absolutely, you hit the nail on the head. It has really, while a lot of these kids are living with parents because they’re not making any headway in self-support, or certainly they’re not really for financial support, but the fact that you’re living with your parents doesn’t in itself mean anything. You could be, my son was living with us when he was in law school, and that certainly meant launching. So it’s more about what the kid is doing or not doing relative to preparing a trajectory for themselves. And if mom and dad support can be a positive part of that, then that’s great.
Brett McKay: And when did you start noticing in your practice an uptick in the number of young adults having this failure to launch?
Mark McConville: I don’t have perfect hindsight. I’m guessing it was around, I looked back at my journals, ’cause I’ve kept a professional journal for decades, and it was around the end of the 1990s that I began to get a lot of these referrals, kids who were in their 20s, and where the therapy work with them just felt so much more like working with an adolescent. And adolescents have been a specialty of mine since the beginning of my career. And what I learned is that you could have terrific interesting, insightful intriguing conversations with a 22-year-old who’s kind of stuck. And if you don’t get their parents involved in the process and start recruiting them as co-therapists the therapy really goes nowhere. So I would say it was around 2000 would be where I would peg it.
Brett McKay: And what do you think is going on there? What’s going on to increase number of young people having that hard time transitioning from adolescence to adulthood?
Mark McConville: Well, we could probably write a sociological treatise on this. Some of the more obvious things are that the job market has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. The amount of education it takes for you to be a viable candidate for employment that could sustain you and has a future to it is so much different. When I graduated from high school I could have taken a bus across town, applied to Kodak for a job, and as an 18-year-old, I could have within six months saved enough money to put a down payment on a car and move out and get an… Those kinds of opportunities, when we had a manufacturing culture. They existed. You could be independent and financially viable by the time… Kids would put, they would put down payments on houses in their early 20s, but today that’s just… We’re in an economy that’s service oriented, that’s technology oriented, and so the preparation you need is so much greater, and that means tuition dollars, and that usually means mom and dad. And then when we just look at things like the cost of housing and the growth of real wages, those have been disappointing trends for anyone that’s at that point in life of trying to step toward the adult world.
Brett McKay: And also you talk about, parenting has changed as a consequence ’cause parents realize that it’s gonna take a lot more to get their kids into adulthood. So parents are kinda stressing out about parenting more than they did in the past.
Mark McConville: Yep. That’s Right. The idea that you’re done when they’re 18, which was a just a kind of understood truth, back in the day. It is just not the case anymore. If you’re the parent of someone who’s graduating from high school, there are lots of ways that you remain involved. At the very least, as a financial support and, as a consultant, as a sounding board. So yeah, parenting. It’s not over when they turn 18.
Brett McKay: We talk about how parents can be a consultant, but some parents they do more than be a consultant, they actually just try to make their kid like… Just do this stuff for their kid that they should probably be doing themselves.
Mark McConville: Yeah, parents today, I hear this a lot and it’s a very standard criticism of contemporary parenting, all these helicopter parents, and we hear nightmare stories of how college professors get emails from the parents of students. And I heard one story of the HR director of a large corporation hearing from a parent about why didn’t my daughter get promoted? And those kinds of anecdotes really make parents look bad. But if you look at the bigger picture, there’s something very different happening. This generation of parents. And I’m gonna be say, broadly from the last 20 years to now it’s the most… This is the most supported generation of young people. If for example, Brett let’s say you’re a 14-year-old with a learning disability. And so you don’t find school very appealing and you find it kinda cumbersome. And the year happens to be 1975 or 1980, you are just generally regarded by everyone as kind of a pain in the neck and you’re gonna quarrel with your teachers, your parents, are gonna fight with you. Yeah, you may be thinking about dropping out of school.
But if you’re that 14-year-old today, you’re going to be looked at much more sympathetically, you’re gonna be evaluated, people are gonna identify that you’ve got a learning issue, they’re gonna set up a very special and supportive academic path for you forward. Your parents are gonna be much more sympathetic. So, I could go on and on. Whether you’re a poor student or whether you’re a student athlete, the amount of support that issues from the adult world today is overwhelming. So there’s a positive side to this phenomenon. We are producing better athletes, we’re producing, I think academically, the kids would come out of high school today, maybe they don’t have the feet on the ground maturity for running their life, but they are academically in many cases, very well prepared. So There’s a plus side as well as a minus side.
Brett McKay: Something you highlight in the book is about the recent developments in developmental psychology that kinda gives us some insights about what’s going on in a person as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because I think for most people they think, okay, you’re a teenager, and then after you’re a teenager you’re an adult and you’re an adult the rest of your life but there’s actually something in between that, talk about that.
Mark McConville: Yeah, and you’re absolutely right. I know when I turned 21, I was naive enough to believe that I was supposed to be an adult, I internally certainly knew that I wasn’t but I never would have admitted that to anyone. There’s a psychologist named Jeffrey Arnett and in 1999 he published really a landmark paper where he made the case for the jury of established Developmental Psychology professionals. He said, there’s a stage here that we haven’t really identified and it’s called Emerging adulthood, and it starts at 18 and it ends at 30. So, the notion we had before was that when you turn 21, and the benchmarks, you were defined an adult by certain benchmarks, by getting married, by getting a full-time job, by having a child, and those are things certainly in my era and I’m probably older than you are. In my era, I had accomplished all those things by the time I was 23 years old, and so like it or not, I was forced to do my best to behave like an adult.
What Arnett did is he looked at today’s 20-somethings. He has given literally tens of thousands of questionnaires to kids from countries all over the world, and among the questions he puts to them is, “Do you feel like an adult? And he uses a five-point Likert scale. No hardly at all. Well, some of the time… Well, about half of the time, much of the time, most of the time, and what he found, and this is my favorite statistic really in all of behavioral science, it is not until 26 and 1/2 years old, that half of the people feel like an adult half of the time. And so, he’s made the case that it’s no longer a question of hitting these benchmarks. Marriage, child birth. It’s much more a subjective process, a beginning of identity, “I feel like an adult internally and you adults out there in the world, you begin to regard me as an adult.” And so that the whole understanding of what it means to grow up has evolved pretty dramatically.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that thought was interesting, ’cause I mean I kind of experienced… I experienced that too. It wasn’t until, yeah, I think, yeah, about 25, 26 that I finally felt, “Yeah, I’m an adult.” I’m doing adult things and actually feeling… That’s sort of an interesting thing there. You could be doing adult things but not feel like an adult subjectively, there could be a gap there.
Mark McConville: Right, or you’re feeling like it in certain circumstances. In the last chapter of my book, I write a letter to the 20-something. And so, if you’re the parent reader, you can print out that letter, or contact me for a PDF version and put it in the hands of your 23-year-old. And one of the things I say is, “Look, don’t think you’re gonna feel like an adult all the time, that just doesn’t happen.” And we don’t want it to happen. When I think of my closest friends, the people I really regard as grown-ups, they all have a kind of playful child-like adolescent dimension to their personality that they can call on when they need to.
Brett McKay: Yeah, every grown man is also still a 14-year-old boy.
Mark McConville: Well, yeah. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: In some way.
Mark McConville: Well, every time I do counseling with a distraught wife, I will say, “You know, we’re all really 14.” Which, as long as you’re not 14 all the time. You can get away with it.
Brett McKay: Right, also what I love about your book. I think a lot of these books, they are articles that talk about failure a lot. They typically talk about the problem, but they never offer a suggestion of how you can make that transition. And I love it ’cause I think, as I was reading your book. I thought, “Man this guy, I think he got it.” ‘Cause you’ve had been dealing with a thousand, hundreds of patients that have been going through this, or clients. So you can make the case that there are basically three tasks that an emerging adult has to master successfully transition into adulthood. And the first one is becoming responsible. And I think people say, “Okay, responsibility means like showing up on time, or getting a job, being financially independent.” But is there more to responsibility than that?
Mark McConville: A way more. And let me tell you how I came up with these three tasks because I’m not a researcher, I’m a psychotherapist, I’m a country doctor, so to speak. My entire career, I have kept this journal of where I would just try to describe the perplexing things that I’m encountering every day with my clients, with myself that trying to find language and understanding and explanation. And the question I begin to ask myself is, “What are the psychotherapy themes that keep coming up with these struggling 20 somethings?” And one of them is, there’s this, what seems on the surface. A very peculiar avoidance, sometimes almost a phobic avoidance of doing very simple administrative tasks like, I had a mom and a 19-year-old in my office, this is about two years ago, and their quarrel is, she has said to him, “You have to call the dentist office to reschedule your appointment because it conflicts with your work schedule.” And this kid digs that he will not do it and I have run into that kind of curious resistance over and over and over again.
And when as a therapist, I succeed in peeling back the layers of the onion and we get to talking about what is that doctor’s appointment, what’s that phone call all about? What comes out is, “I’m afraid they’re not gonna take me seriously, that I’m afraid the receptionist is gonna yell at me if I… ” That’s the 14-year-old boy right there, I’m afraid and it’s this… So I avoid doing these simple mechanical administrative responsibilities that adults have always managed my whole life. My mom has made all my doctor’s appointments. They reminded me when I had to be here, I had to be there, and now all of a sudden I have to take that on myself, and it’s not… As I point out to the mom, it’s not that your son doesn’t know how to make a phone call, he knows how to make a phone call. What he doesn’t know how to do is to make one as an adult. And so, what’s underlying in that whole responsibility issue is I’m passing myself off as an adult, and you know I don’t really feel like an adult. I’m faking it and I’m afraid I’m gonna be found out.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the first one is responsibility, the second task is relational. And it sounds like that relational and responsibility, you’re kinda working together. Young people have a hard time relating to other adults as adults, and so consequently they fail to do things like call the receptions at the dentist office?
Mark McConville: Right, yeah. And the thing about relational. I know a lot of, having studied adolescence, I’ve written, published a lot about adolescent development. The social task of adolescence is to fit in, is to find my place. Am I one of the cool kids, am I one of the nerds, am I one of the jocks? But I need to find a place that feels relatively secure. And the thing is when you leave high school, that’s not enough that kind of knowing my place is insufficient and I have had conversations literally hundreds of times with kids who are getting to the end of high school and they’re saying, “I can’t find anyone in my school to have a real conversation with.” Meaning conversations that have more of a relational intimacy quality.
So when you get into that next stage, you need help you need friends that are going through the same thing. Someone that can say, “Oh my God, yes, that sucks. I had trouble with that too. I hate it when my mother asked me to call the dentist office.” And you also need, you need to find people that know more stuff than you do, and so that they can coach you. When you’re a freshman in college and some upper classmen says, “Don’t take that professor. You’ll regret it.” Or, “Think twice before you sign up for 8 AM classes.” Then you’ve got someone that’s doing just this little bit of mentoring that helps you to find your way in the world and helps you to build confidence. So that’s, when I say becoming more relational, it’s developing relationships that in some way are instrumental to my own personal process of growing up.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back a little bit to the responsibility issue. ‘Cause these kids, the reason why they don’t take responsibility is ’cause they question whether they’re capable of doing it and as you said, sometimes they’re capable of doing it, they can make a phone call. But the thing that holds them back is, will I be taken seriously? So how do you close that gap, how do you help your clients overcome the sense of, I don’t know, embarrassment, that someone’s not gonna take them…
Mark McConville: Shame.
Brett McKay: Yeah shame, that they’re not gonna be taken seriously as an adult?
Mark McConville: Well, the first thing, because they almost always singularly think that this is something wrong with them, and so it’s a secret, they won’t acknowledge it. I’m thinking of a kid who, his dad took his car away ’cause their deal was, you can have a car, as long as you’re at college. Because he lived about 30 miles from the school, he could drive back and forth, and the dad said, “Look, you flunked out, the car is gone.” He had an apartment here in Cleveland on Cedar Road, right down about two miles from a brand new massive shopping center. And the dad said, “They’re hiring, they’re just opening up, you’ll take the bus back and forth to work.” Well, this kid, you’d think that the father asked him to jump off a cliff into a raging sea, and I watched them go back and forth in the office and I finally excused the dad. I said, “Would you wait in the waiting on for us.” And I sat with the kid, one-on-one, I looked at him, I gave him kind of this little twinkle in my eye smile, [chuckle] and I said, “You don’t know how to take a bus do you?” And he just had one of these, like he’d been caught. [chuckle] And I said, “No, really. Do you pay when you get on, or do you pay when you get off?”
He had no idea. I said, “How about this, next Saturday, your dad’s gonna drive in to your apartment, the two of you are gonna take the bus, go and have breakfast at one of the new restaurants and take the bus back?” It’s the first thing I have to do as a therapist is de-shame the whole issue, because I wanna tell him, “I don’t know whether I have to pay when I get on or I have to pay when I get off. And any time I have to take the rapid train into downtown Cleveland, I stop and ask my wife, ‘How much is the fare? When do I have to do it?'” If you understand that other people share the same uncertainty, you would begin to feel less freakish about it. So I try to normalize it and I try to get someone to instruct them. The kid with the, who wouldn’t call the dentist office, I had the mom, I just said, “Mom, would you call the dentist’s office right here on speaker phone and just reschedule the appointment?” Which she did, and the kid just kinda listened and said, “Oh. Yeah, okay, I could do that.” So de-shaming it, giving some modeling, showing how it’s done, that usually helps kids to move forward.
Brett McKay: And any insights or advice on parents who, maybe they don’t have a 20-something yet, but maybe they don’t wanna have a 20-something that has that sort of issue. What can parents do proactively on their teenagers to prevent that?
Mark McConville: Well, on one radio show when I was being interviewed, and they had a call in, a dad called in and said, “You know, I’m finding this all very interesting, what can I do with my three-year-old?”
And I scratched my head and I thought, “Well, what can you do with a three-year-old?” I said, “Well, you can go into the playroom and you can sit down on the floor and say, “Come on honey, we are gonna pick up these toys together.” You can create this little loops of accountability that you are… You have a job, you’re part of this family. And kids who have that, and some parents do it so skillfully, they’re not just hounding their kids about chores, they’re presenting it more as like, “We need your help around here. We’re all part of this.” The model I use is kids that grow up in farming communities, because those parents are never quarreling with their kids about responsibilities because the kid views responsibility as essential to the family functioning, to the community functioning. And so, it’s a little harder to do that if you live in suburbia, and you don’t have the chicken coop in the back yard where the eggs have to be collected.
But it is a kind of attitude that parents can have about recruiting their kids for being responsible for themselves. So that’s a big part of it. And you certainly, I see, and in fact, as I have, this book has gotten out and I’ve heard from parents, I’m hearing them say, “Oh my God, I’m working on that issue with my 12-year-old. How do we get her to clean up after herself, how do we get her to monitor her own homework?”
Brett McKay: So yeah, thinking about it, so going back to the idea of the task of becoming more relational, as you said, adolescence you’re basically focused on your peers, whether you fit in, whether they’re fun to hang out with, but as kids get older, the end of adolescence, they’re looking for more meaningful relationships and this requires… And it’s particularly… I remember growing when I was in that age like 18, early 20s, I thought it was really weird that transition to working with adults as other adults. That’s really hard, ’cause at one point you always like, they are the authority figure, if they’re above 18. I gotta listen to this person. Once you’re 18, they start treating you completely different, they treat you like another adult and that’s… It can be weird.
Mark McConville: It can be weird but it’s also very affirming. Like you, I remember the jobs that I had during my college years, sort of hard labored jobs and I had a year, a summer working at one of the old style state mental hospitals and I was doing something that mattered to the organization. And sometimes, when you’re young, you have to prove yourself a little bit. Are you just a college punk or, [chuckle] “No I’m not, I’m actually a hard worker.” But being treated that way as somehow you’re doing, making an important contribution to the labor site, or the kid is working in a grocery store and realizes they’re really counting on him to keep the fruits and vegetables restocked. That’s a transformative kind of experience and it’s not unusual for a parent… A parent will run into, say a parent of a high school student runs into their kid’s boss. And let’s say the kid works at a grocery store and the boss says, “Oh my God, we love having your son, he’s so helpful and he’s so… ” And the parent just kinda cocks their head and says, “Wait, are you sure, I mean my son is Johnny Jones.” “Yeah, Johnny Jones, he’s terrific.” And the kid is literally has a different experience of self when he finds himself taken seriously and providing an essential function in the adult world, whereas at home, it all feels more aggressive. “You’re making me do these chores, it’s not my turn. My brother should have been emptying the dishwasher. Why are you making me do it?”
Brett McKay: And part of the relational development that used to happen to enter adulthood, it seems to be shifting from having your parents and other adults solve your problems and tell you what to do, to seeing them more as consultants who you can still look to for advice if you need it, but the relationship becomes less vertical and more horizontal.
Mark McConville: Yes, yeah, yeah. I have a young guy that, he’s just graduating now from high school, got admitted to I think four or five really wonderful universities. And the parents who are sort of extraordinarily successful business people, they announced to him… Now, not recently, we’ve solved this problem, but they announced to him back in September, “You are going to a business school. And if you’re not going to a business school, we’re not paying for it.” Now that is that’s the kind of parenting that is appropriate up to about age 12, right? I’m not gonna let you make a decision that I perceive to be the wrong decision, or a destructive decision. But at age 18, that’s preposterous to be, “I am going to be your supervisor and make decisions for you as if you were a child.” And so, I worked with the parents. And what we got them to do was to shift from operating as supervisors, to operating as consultants.
And in the consultant mode, they were able to say things like, “Well, you might wanna think about business school because you’re awfully bright, you really have a mind for it and you did really well in your high school Economics class and we just think you’d have a very bright future in it, but you know which school you decide and what major you decide is really up to you.” In that sense, they acted as, they gave an opinion, but they conceded that the decision making power lay on the side of their kid and that’s what I mean by being a consultant. I consulted several schools. I have lots to say, [chuckle] I’m full of opinions, but I have zero power. And I don’t volunteer those opinions unless somebody asks me for them. That’s what a consultant is.
Brett McKay: Right. I imagine, I mean part of that being a consultant, the parent has to realize their kid might make a decision they think is wrong, or just dumb or it is a dumb decision and they have to be okay with that.
Mark McConville: Yes, they really have to. And in fact, it paradoxically, it increases their influence over their child. Just a classic textbook example, I had a family with a 24 year old who lived at home. Now, he really didn’t present problems, he wasn’t very ambitious. Parents were educated and successful. He had a blue-collar job, but he handled it faithfully. He went to work, he got his paycheck, he didn’t cause anyone any trouble, but he was a marijuana smoker. Not that unusual for a 24-year-old in today’s day and age. And the dad was, he was like a dad out of the 1950s. “Over my dead body will you be a marijuana smoker.” And they had gone round and round and round and that’s what brought them in to see me, was the conflict over the pot-smoking. And what this kid, it was a tug of war. They’d come home and walk up the steps and they would smell the pot wafting down from the third floor. And I finally, it took me a long time to persuade the dad I said, “Look, I have some very scientifically-based concerns, and reservations about young people smoking marijuana. The research actually is much more concerned about pre-18-year-olds, not so much about Post-18-year-olds.” But I said, “You know, at 24 like it or not, he really, that’s his business whether he chooses to smoke pot.”
And dad didn’t like hearing that, but eventually conceded that that made sense. I said, “On the other hand, whether someone smokes pot in your house, that’s completely your business.” So the dad kind of re-changed his approach, he went to the kid and said, “Look, you know how I feel about pot, I think it’s a terrible decision, blah, blah, blah.” He gave his whole Reefer Madness kind of commentary on it, but then ended with, “But it’s your decision to make. And I am gonna stop fighting with you about it and stop hounding you about it. However, under no circumstances do I want you smoking pot under my roof.” And that kid’s behavior changed instantaneously because he was being approached now as an adult rather than as a junior, as a teenager or a child. And the kid who was I would see him individually he didn’t like it, but he saw it as a reasonable set of conditions. That’s what’s shifting into a consultant mode is. You may make decisions I don’t really think are good, but I’m gonna recognize your right to make them.
Brett McKay: So the final task is becoming relevant. What do you mean by that?
Mark McConville: Well, that’s the hardest one to define. But as a therapist in a way it was the easiest one to register. When I would be talking with a young person I had a sense of they’re moving toward something. They are interested in having a future. They didn’t have their head in the sand. I can think of the kid who’s living in an apartment with four other guys who are high school graduates, and they are all playing Xbox about 12 hours a day and living off the family door. Now those young folks are not heading anywhere and their notion of future is, “What are we gonna do tomorrow? Call of Duty or Fortnite?” That’s their idea of preparing for the future. But when you’re talking with someone who is, they really, they’re engaged in some kind of activity. School is the most obvious one. The kid who’s been out of high school for a year and he’s saying, “I really wanna look at what they have up at community college. I’ve been thinking about this or that or the other thing.” You know that kid has a sense of the future. He doesn’t know exactly where he’s gonna end up.
The difference between a 19-year-old that tells me, he and his band are gonna make it big, and that’s the extent of his future planning versus the 19-year-old, that tells me the same thing, but he’s also enrolled in a program at the Community College for learning sound technology for the recording business. Now, that’s a kid that’s… [chuckle] I hope his band makes it, but he’s also doing something that says, I know there’s a wider future and I’ve gotta do something to prepare for it. My word of relevance is, I get that there is a space for me somewhere in the… There’s a parking space in the adult world. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know exactly where I’m headed, but I’m working in that direction. And when I have a kid in my office who doesn’t have that, where there is this sometimes very explicit sometimes implicit sense of despair like, “I want time to stop, I’m just doing the thing I’m doing, to buy time and to avoid having to do anything that’s really challenging or that carries me into the future.” It’s having a sense of direction. That’s really what relevance is, “I have a sense of a direction forward. I may not know where I’m gonna end up, but I have a direction.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of… I’ve gotten a lot of letters from young men who are like 18, in their early 20s. And they say like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life.” And as a consequence, they don’t do anything, ’cause they think they had to have like this perfect plan.
Mark McConville: Yeah, you got it.
Brett McKay: You don’t need that. My typical advice is like, “Man, just get started with something.”
Mark McConville: Yeah.
Brett McKay: “And as you get going you’ll notice things, opportunities start opening up.”
Mark McConville: Yeah, you’re talking about what I call a sense of direction. And I talked about how kids think they have to do it on their own. The other theme that comes up probably 75% of the time is just what you said, “I’m 19, I’m 20, I’m 21 years old, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do for my life.” And the interpretation that kid makes is, “I’m somehow behind the pack and I’m screwed.” And I point out to them there’s a wonderful piece of research where someone asked people who were in their 40s and 50s about their work life. And one of the questions was, it’s a sort of to agree or disagree. And the question was, “I love what I do, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living?” And it turns out only about 15% of the adult population will endorse that item. So it’s a small group. And what the researcher did was singled out those people, and then interviewed them to kind of backtrack. So how did you find this thing, this niche that feels so perfect for you? It turns out that the center of the bell curve for when people found that path is between ages 28 and 30. And most of these kids who are thinking, “I’m 22, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do for a lifelong career.”
They’re just laboring under a very common misunderstanding of how a life career emerges. The researcher who’s done all this, Jeffrey Arnett, he breaks up the 20s into three stages. The first is launching which we talked a little bit about. Then the middle one which was… It’s sort of like, if you go to college, when you get out of college into your late 20s he called exploring. And he points out that you’re gonna have something like 3.1 romantic relationships in that time. You’re gonna have close to seven jobs, actually, in that time. But in every one of those engagements you’re gonna learn something about who you are, about what turns you off, about what turns you on. It so often happens that someone takes that beginning level, boring job like you point out, I’m doing something, but it doesn’t intrigue me.
But I do it really well, and then someone at the next level up retires and they pull me… And it’s that kind of unpredictable path. I often say to these kids, “Look… And this is an image I use in the book, “It is not a highway into your future, it’s a climbing wall, and on a climbing wall, you don’t plot your course. You get one hand hold and one foot hold, and then you look for the next.” [chuckle] And you don’t know what the second one is until you’ve established the first one. And then you take the next one, you move your foot, you move your hand, then you figure out where do I go from here?” And then when you look at real people with satisfying careers, almost always that’s the kind of path they describe.
Brett McKay: And I think that one of the big reasons why transitioners have that hard time is ’cause, when they’re in high school there’s always these like steps you take. Like, “I do this, I take this AP class, then I go this, and I do this.” Once you reach adulthood, it’s not like that anymore. It’s a big shock to finally realize, “Oh, things just aren’t set out for me. There isn’t a 12-step program I gotta follow to become an adult, I just gotta get moving.”
Mark McConville: Exactly. Developmentalists have this concept that they call the life structure. And it’s in your life or my life, it’s what we do, where we go, the people, places and things that we interact with on a regular basis, our primary relationships, our purposes, our obligations. Well, in high school, your life structure is designed by the adult world. Even if you’re the kid that cuts class, there’s a place you’re supposed to be, and that’s class. Even if you don’t do any work there’s stuff you should be doing. So there is a defined structure, a path forward, and you can… If you just abide by it, more or less, it will carry you forward and you will have opportunities available when you’re 18 that you didn’t have at 14. Now, you graduate from high school and it’s open range. [chuckle] Do you go to school? What about the Armed Services? You’d rather work? Well, what kind of a job? There’s so many possibilities, and there’s no one that can tell you, “Look, this is the one that was made for you.” You all of a sudden become the decision maker. And that’s where that significant rise in the kind of anxiety water table occurs, when you move on from high school. You’re the architect.
Brett McKay: And I think the thing that helps a lot of young people is like them listening to adults, who’d say, “I felt the same way too. Like, “This is normal.” ‘Cause I think a lot of young people think that something’s wrong with them, or they feel like that, and the reality is no, you’re supposed to feel like that, and you’ll be fine.
Mark McConville: That’s right. You’re absolutely right. And when I get those kids like, “I really think there’s something freakishly wrong with me because I don’t know.” I say, “Tell me about your aunts and uncles. Give me the family tree.” I say, “Okay, look, I want you to promise me you will call your uncle Harry tonight and ask him if he would be willing to tell you what it was like for him at age 20. Would you sit down with your mom and dad and ask them.” You’re right, if they can get that realistic sense of perspective from adults and often, the dad doesn’t wanna say, “Yeah, I flunked out of college after a semester and a half because I was partying too much and then I worked for a year and then I went back to school and then I went on to get my MBA and then I went on to start my corporate.” Or whatever. The kid has no idea that there were some significant stumbles early in the path. And I really think it helps kids, it humanizes the whole business of growing up, when adults are willing to share that stuff with them.
Brett McKay: So, this is the three big task, and ’cause a parent who’s listening to this, thinks “Okay, this is great. Now, I gotta motivate my kid to do these things.” But you’re talking about the book, like, thinking that you can motivate your kid to do this stuff, probably, it’s gonna backfire on you.
Mark McConville: Well, that’s very interesting Brett. If we really did a random sample of 100 parents of 22-year-olds. Some of them use the old-fashioned methods, “Get out of bed and go apply for a job.” And with a certain percent of kids, they move forward because they don’t want their parents nagging at them. “I went off to college and I signed up because I don’t know, my dad would have been furious if I didn’t.” So there is a percentage of the population for whom the parents don’t really have to do anything elegantly but the kids who make their way into my office and who made their way into my book, those parents have tried all that stuff, and it not only doesn’t work, it’s just making the relationship more and more conflicted and those parents really have to adopt a different perspective on motivation. They have to create necessity. There’s a story I tell in the book that I think captures the entire outlook on motivation. So this was a dad whose 19-year-old son was a terrific kid by all description. He tried culinary school just didn’t like it, and now, he was home, he wasn’t a drug user, he was a nice kid, he had a girlfriend and dad got him a car because he knew that without a car, he wasn’t very likely gonna be able to find work and then get himself back and forth to work. But this kid’s effort and job search was really… It was sort of textbook.
“Yeah, I filled out an application yesterday.” [chuckle] One or two week was enough. And the dad was after him and after him and after him. And he came to me and said, “What can I do to motivate him?” And I said, “Does he have any bills?” And the dad said, “Bills? He doesn’t have any income. How could he have had bills?” I said, “No, no, no, it works the opposite way.” And then the dad stopped and said “Well, he sort of does. And that is when I got him the car. It’s a used car. We got it six months ago and we agreed to go halfsies the payment was, I think $600 a month. I’ll pay for 300, he’ll pay 300.” I said, “How’s that gone?” He said, “Well, the first month, he gave me 150 bucks. I haven’t seen a penny since then. And I marched him to do it, but he doesn’t have any money.” So I thought for a bit and I said, “How’s this? Is this paid up, this is the old… How’s it set up?” It’s the old payment coupon kind of arrangement. You send your payment in with the coupon. And I said, “Why don’t you try this next month, next month you give him the coupon book and a check for $300.”
He looked at me like, “Oh.” It never occurred to him. And all we did was we took the dilemma, which is, “How are we gonna pay for this car and keep it from being repossessed?” The dilemma was on the dad’s side of the boundary, it had become his business somehow. He wasn’t willing to let the car become repossessed because, “My God, he’ll never get a job if I let that happen.” “Well, let’s put that dilemma on the other side of the boundary, so now it becomes the kid’s dilemma. How do I keep this car from being repossessed?” In a nutshell, it’s how do we create necessity that the kid will then respond to by adjusting, by adapting, by creatively solving a problem? That’s the mystery of motivation it is has to do with the parent thinking, “How do I create that system of necessity?” Most obvious thing is going to your kid and saying, “Oh, here’s your portion of the family cellphone bill. It has to be paid by such and such a time.” Most kids are on their parents’ plan. It takes a simple visit to the website and inactivate, click on the inactivate button for the service to be topped up. That kid will find a way to pay for that cellphone bill pronto. Because, of course, it’s the center of his social life.
Brett McKay: Now that makes perfect sense, that’s creative adjustment is what that’s called.
Mark McConville: Yeah, that’s the term for it is, “I’m confronted with something that perplexes me. It’s a challenge but it’s necessary. I can’t just side step it and I push myself to do or learn something, I didn’t know how to do before.” I love the example of, if you know how to change a flat tire, you experienced creative adjustment because you didn’t take the manual one day. Go out into the garage and say, “You know, I’m gonna teach myself how to change a tire.” A few people have done that, but most of us, we found ourselves at the side of a road, like, “Oh my God. Now what?” Get out the manual, find out where the jack is, find out where the spare is and half an hour later, you have a new skill, changing flat tires, that’s creative adjustment.
Brett McKay: And in all this, as a young adults making that transition adulthood, parents can still be there to support, but again, the idea is you want the parents to be more of a consultant instead of an enabler. They want that relation to change from when they had it with their 12 year old to compare what they have with an 18 year old.
Mark McConville: Absolutely. I am a huge opponent to what’s called tough love. I think if you’ve got a struggling 20-something, if I’m the therapist of that struggling 20-something, I want him or her to have parents who are available, who are emotionally empathetic, who are open to conversations. I don’t want them bailing them out and paying all their bills and keeping them on the family, but I want them to be available. “You know son, if I can help you, I’ve done a lot of job searches in my life. I know a lot about how that works. Just ask and I’d be happy to help you out. I’m not gonna impose what I know on you, but it’s available.” And I then, as a therapist, I try to get kids to see, “Your parents not trying to control you. You don’t have to prove your independence. Your parent is a wealth of information and wisdom and you gotta tap into it.” And if the parent is managing themselves as a consultant, the kid is much more likely to turn to them with that significant question. “Dad, how should I approach a job? Do I wear a tie to a job interview?” You know, simple questions that dad probably knows the answer to and the 19 or 20 or 21-year-old may not.
Brett McKay: And I think the thing that kinda keeps parents up at night is thinking about how much financial support they should give their kid when they’re making this transition of adulthood. And it sounds like as long as your kid’s making those moves towards adulthood, like they’re going to school, they’ve got a job, it’s okay if a parent gives a bit of financial support, ’cause as you said earlier, the economy is different now. It’s hard to make that transition to adulthood without a significant amount of income.
Mark McConville: I completely agree with that, Brett. The phrase I use for that is, I call it the 49% rule. I am gonna help my kid out up to 49% of what it takes to get a life moving, to get a life going. If you’re sending your kid to college, there’s chances that you are putting tremendous financial strain on yourself. If your kid is doing the work of college, taking the classes, getting the credits, moving toward a future, amen, God bless you. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Brett McKay: Well Mark, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Mark McConville: Well, I have a modest website, markmcconvillephd.com. It’s got some information about the book, tells a little bit about me. It’s got information on all the other things that I’ve published if people are interested and that would be my… And it also has links to… I’ve had articles published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and it has links to those two articles.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Mark McConville, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Mark McConville: It has certainly been a pleasure for me. Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: Like I said, it’s Mark McConville. He is the author of the book, “Failure to Launch”. It’s available at Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, markmcconvillephd.com. Also check out our show notes aom.is/launch where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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