Globe & Mail, October 24, 2009
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
Eighteen months ago, the university-educated son of a client quit his entry-level professional job, saying it wasn't "emotionally satisfying." He's been unemployed ever since.
Frantic, my client and his wife have tried everything to help their son find a new job. They have referred him to a career counsellor, scoured job boards, forwarded postings, spent hours writing his resume and conducted mock interviews. They have also aggressively mined their networks and even set up meetings and job interviews on his behalf.
Their child's unemployment is all they can think and talk about. Even though they understand it's a bad economy, they argue a lot about whose fault it is that their son has what they call a "bad work attitude." This couple is not alone in the lengths they've gone to help their kid.
Interference is epidemic among helicopter boomer parents, especially now with the high unemployment rate among young workers. Nor are they alone in the degree to which they have been emotionally affected by their child's work situation. But this level of extreme intrusiveness is not good for anyone.
Of course, parents have always meddled in their kids' career decisions. What's new is the lengths they will go to - and, even more important, how much of a vote they think they should have in shaping their kids' professional lives.
One acquaintance is typical. She is the mother of a twenty-something woman who doesn't know what she wants to do. She refuses to butt out, even though her daughter has repeatedly implored her to allow her to figure out her career path herself.
But the mother is so anxious, she desperately asks every professional she meets socially to talk to her daughter about what it's like to be a chef/ human resources manager/ retail buyer/ make-up artist. She is shopping for a career concept for her daughter.
Sometimes the kids parents want to rescue don't even need help. I regularly receive calls from anxious parents who want career counselling referrals for their kids. When I ask why, the parent often says something like: "Well, my daughter is actually happy, but I think she should be doing something more interesting with her life."
Or else parents ask me to be their mouthpiece. They want me to tell their kids they should go back to school or lobby for a promotion or move to another industry sector - whatever the parents figure is the right next step.
When it comes to career management, some twenty-somethings are hapless. But that didn't happen overnight.
Parents, blame yourselves. If your kids have never sewed on a button or made a dental appointment, why should they be able to find a job?
Some twenty-somethings are unrealistic in their career expectations. They think they should be passionate about their work, regardless of the state of the economy or their skills. Again, parents, blame yourselves.
Many twenty-somethings think that doing work they love is a fundamental right. After all, boomer parents have told their kids that's what they should aim for.
But extreme over-involvement does not help the kids. In fact, it makes it tougher for them. Many young people have told me their parents were a major contributor to their career angst.
Spousal relationships also suffer from over-involvement. Parents fight about the best career strategy tactics, how much financial support to provide, and who is to blame for their kid's difficulties.
Parents are not appropriate career counsellors. Therapists shouldn't treat their children - they're likely part of the problem. Similarly, parents' expectations and the emotional freight they engender are also part of the problem.
Parents are also typically bad career counsellors. The career management tactics they used, and the career choices they made, often no longer apply.
Although this job market is challenging, it doesn't mean you should go to Herculean lengths to rescue your kid. You should do the same things in any job market: try to be supportive, while treating them like adults.
Don't get sucked into your child's story about his or her need to find a job with advancement opportunities if the subtext is: I'll do this on your dime. You aren't being mean when you expect a 30-year-old's independence. It's okay for your child to take a job that is less interesting or below training because of the current economy. It's also okay if your child is deeply confused. Vocational uncertainty is a critical part of the process of trying to figure out what to do with your life.
Indeed, there is little percentage in helping. If your kids are successful in finding work or choosing a career niche purely as a result of your intervention, they can't own the delicious feelings of success and competence. They will also feel like frauds. And if they are unhappy in career choices you have steered them toward, they will blame you.
As a parent, you need to manage your own anxieties and understand your motivations for trying to help. Your identity is not tied to your child's occupational success.
Most kids eventually do experience a soft landing, even when career plans are delayed or have taken a few rough detours.
Many twenty-somethings are fairly competent when it comes to thinking about work and careers. They have had access to career courses, university counselling services, and the Net.
So parents, before you take your kids' angst to heart and turn your world upside down to help them, remember, it's their life. Ask yourself: Is your child really hurting? Can I help? And most importantly, should I?
Another reason to butt out: it's too late. Your adult kids are fully baked. You cannot now, through your interventions, imploring or pep talks, make them more ambitious or intellectually curious, or find them a job you love.
Tips for helping your kids
Walk the tenderness line
Your child will not love you more if you subsidize their lifestyle while they are unemployed. On the other hand, don't be punitive. It is a tough job market.
You might be able to subsidize a return to school, but set some rules and timelines for your child to get back on track. And don't control with your purse strings: This can lead to a nasty cocktail of anger, resentment and guilt on both sides.
Young adults are often confused about their path. Offer patience and understanding.
Don't fall into the "this will look bad on the resume" trap. Parents and kids often worry that a retail, construction, or temp job will undermine longer-term professional progression. But most employers will have more respect for an applicant who was independent, plucky and took available work.
Don't be an enabler
You can't expect your kids to be aggressive in their job search if you foot the bills to maintain their lifestyle while unemployed. Besides, you rob them of the feelings of success in finding a job on their own and being financially independent. (You might also want to ask why you are facilitating your child's dependence; does it make you feel more needed as a parent?)
Offer advice only when asked
Don't weigh in with unsolicited advice. And when you are asked, respond, don't dictate. Remember: You aren't a career counsellor . So don't try to come across as an expert.
Distinguish between being helpful and being intrusive
If your child expresses a desire for help, buy a career book, access to an on-line career assessment or assist in finding a career counsellor, which you might offer to help subsidize. If you have contacts who might be good connections, encourage it. Ease the way by sending a quick introduction e-mail.
But let your child take it from there. You've crossed the line when you do things like write your kid's resume, arrange appointments on their behalf or expect to be apprised of confidential conversations.
Don't let the kids come between you
You, your spouse or step-parents may have different views on things such as the best career strategy tactics or appropriate financial support . Find ways to resolve them, and don't use your child as a flashpoint for other unresolved conflicts in your relationships. Keep in mind that support for one child may spur jealousy and resentment in your other children.