Nearly three-quarters of millennials receive financial assistance from their parents after college, but most of them aren't proud of it.
Image by Sarah MacReading
According to a survey published last month by UBS, a financial services company, 74 percent of millennials receive financial assistance from their parents after college. That includes parents paying for their kids' health insurance, car insurance, monthly rent, and in some cases, even doling out spending money. And those parents? Are they screaming at their kids about bootstraps and elbow grease? No, 80 percent of them said they "feel good" about supporting their adult children. Meanwhile, 52 percent of those millennials feel "shame, frustration, or guilt" accepting that assistance.
Put another way: Most of us young people are relying on the generosity of our parents, but more than half of us feel pretty embarrassed about it.
We've been told, over and over again, that we're lazy garbage babies who will never detach from our mother's nipples. (Or, as the UBS survey put it, we've "redefined the traditional view of parenting.") We're the generation most likely to live with our parents and delay benchmarks of adulthood, like marriage and parenthood, because we can't afford it. We have less wealth and income than the two generations before us. Research shows that most millennials will probably never be able to afford homeownership—in America or the UK—unless they have rich parents. So if you do have rich parents, and they're willing to throw you a bone, why do millennials feel so guilty about it?
"Without the presence of luck, the only way to do something extraordinary as someone in our generation is with [financial] support of some kind."
Amelia Heppner, a 25-year-old restaurant manager, considers herself "financially independent," but admits there have been times when her parents have handled her expenses for her. During college, her parents paid for an apartment off-campus, plus tuition and bills. After college, when she got injured and couldn't work, she says "they paid rent for me for about three months while I was recovering and looking for other jobs." And when she filed her taxes incorrectly and ended up owing $3,000 to the IRS, "my mom paid it off in full immediately so I wouldn't get any interest charges on the amount."
"But," she adds, "I paid her back little by little every month."
Heppner, like many millennials, moved back in with her parents after graduating from college. Even though it saved her money and enabled her to look for work without stressing about paying rent, she says she hated it. "It felt like I was taking three steps backwards in my life because I've always been a pretty independent person."
Chris Olivieri, who is 33 and works in internet marketing, lived with his dad for over five years during and after college. "There is a shame to it," he told me, noting that living at home didn't exactly "play well in romantic relationships" and other family members would repeatedly ask him when he was moving out.
Without that support, though, he said he wouldn't have had the financial safety net to start his own business or even finish school. "Without the presence of luck, the only way to do something extraordinary as someone in our generation is with [financial] support of some kind," he said.
The bootstrapping narrative, which suggests that all you need is hard work in order to achieve success, is a myth. You need opportunity, connections, and financial stability to take risks, not to mention a buttload of luck. Without those, your waitressing job isn't some noble lesson you'll mention later in your TED talk. It's just a waitressing job. And you're just a waitress. Maybe you're a waitress who works very hard, but without access to opportunity, financial stability, or connections, that's the job you're likely always going to have.
At the same time, "there was so much guilt associated with asking for help," said Emily Webster, who is 25 and works in hospitality. Webster, whose parents have supported her financially throughout her early adulthood, said she cried when her parents paid for her furniture. "I had this idea in my head that I had to do everything alone to be successful, and I was so overwhelmed by needing to ask for help."
Webster said she's grateful for the money her parents provided, and she isn't sure what her life would look like without it. "The scary scenario is that, without knowing they were there for me and able to help, I would probably still be in an abusive relationship," she told me. "The less terrifying one is that I would probably be living at home or with a million roommates trying to make shit work at minimum wage. I really don't know. Definitely not where I am, though."
So what happens to millennials who don't get handouts? They get saddled with student loans (if they can afford to go to college at all), working for minimum wage, barely scraping by each month.
I would know, because it happened to me. And when I got fired from my minimum wage job at Yelp (if you're not familiar, here's that story), I didn't know where to turn. So I shared links to PayPal, Venmo, and Square Cash for people who wanted to donate to my "cause." I didn't care if it looked like I was whining and begging for handouts. When you're down to the lowest rung on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you don't give two shits about what people will think of you. If that makes me an entitled millennial, then what do we make of the 74 percent of millennials who get that kind of help from their parents?
The problem, as I see it, isn't that millennials are lazy. In fact, some research shows we're actually more productive than previous generations (just not paid as well). The problem is the concept of "millennial entitlement," or the belief that because we lean on support that's available to us, we're pathetic. But that's just not the whole picture. It delegitimizes issues millennials face, like obscene tuition prices and a low-paying job market, which has made it nearly impossible for millennials to stand on their own without falling down.
Every time Americans have introduced a system of handouts—from Social Security to basic welfare to the Affordable Care Act—there's been critical push back, inevitably followed by acceptance that assistance is good for the community. This is to say: We react to hardship by first questioning its validity, distancing ourselves from it out of pride, spouting our faith in the American Dream, and then, eventually, we wise up and realize the overwhelming benefits of helping others.
There's nothing shameful about taking money from your parents, or anyone else who's willing to help you. Those kinds of "handouts" are the difference between going to college and not. It's the difference between working hard in a dead-end job and having the safety net to take a risk. And pretending you've done it on your own, without the help of your parents or other financial givers, is missing the point altogether.
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