When Your College Graduate Comes Home

This summer, there are more than 100,000 unexpected guests at the family dinner table. They’re adult children — the ones who’ve just graduated from college but expect to remain, at least temporarily, on the family payroll. Some may have jobs that don’t pay enough to support the lifestyle they expect. Others want to get a head start on paying back loans. But most simply don’t have jobs at all.

I can relate. I have advised students and alumni on their careers for decades, first at Brown University, and currently as director of the career center at Duke University. My own son, a 2006 Colgate University graduate in philosophy, has also recently rejoined the family. It is small comfort that I am not alone.

A May 2005 survey showed that a quarter of the class of 2006 expected to spend more than seven months living at home, up from 23 percent of the class of 2005. I now join the hundreds of thousands of parents forced to become a personal career counselor for an “adild” — an adult child.

For most parents, the role of advisor is familiar. From early childhood, parents have imparted wisdom to their children on everything from first dates to how to get into a good college. And children have heeded their advice — keeping parents on the cell phone speed dial.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents would be co-opted in the search for post-graduate employment. But the role of career counselor to an adild is fraught with problems, not to mention the kind of emotional angst that can divert retirement funds to psychotherapy. Parents and their adilds have the same goal: success in life. Unfortunately, definitions of career success and strategies to achieve it vary substantially from generation to generation. What parents may consider the “perfect position” may leave an adild cold, no matter what its prestige and pay.

In the absence of direction, it’s easy to revert to the old “law school/grad school” option, especially if parents are willing to pay. This is a potentially risky proposition: The financial rewards of such an education, if it’s not required for a particular career, may not justify its expense.

It’s the savvy parent who understands how much he doesn’t know about the career landscape for recent college grads. In the past 30 years, since parents were in school, career options have exploded, attitudes changed, and strategies fine-tuned. Advice that may work brilliantly for a mid-career changer may be totally inappropriate for a new grad. The best way for parents to help their adild find a job may actually be to avoid giving them any specific career advice.

Avoiding advice does not mean withholding support. Support can be as simple as helping an adild set short-term goals and identify strategies to achieve them, or encouraging her to return to her college’s career center for help, even if she avoided it like the plague in school. Career readiness comes at different times, and unemployment has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the need to learn effective ways to present abilities and qualifications. Given the number of times an adild is likely to change jobs, an excellent résumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to encourage their adild to find her passion. This is often one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes the discovery only happens by trial and error, working in a number of “not-quite-right” positions. Family, friends and acquaintances can all help, by providing insight into different careers and valuable connections.

One final piece of advice: Set a time limit on living at home without a significant contribution to household expenses. Careers take off more rapidly when graduates take responsibility for their decisions — good and bad — and learn from them. Almost every successful professional has taken risks and experienced failure. The lessons that come through such experiences are invaluable, but much less likely to happen if there is an ever-present parental safety net.

Even if parents enjoy having their adild at home, they need to let go for the sake of their child’s career. Once they do, they’ll be able to return to all those activities they put on hold while raising children. In the process, they’ll be giving a priceless gift to their graduate.

First published in 2006 in the Louisville Courier-Journal and The News and Observer

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