Independence day comes late for millennials

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; C01

Bekah Steadwell graduated last year from an elite college, but the portal to adulthood still seems far away. The 22-year-old, a cook at a bar, lives with her parents in their Chevy Chase D.C. home. Her father and mother prepare Bekah's taxes -- and, many nights, her dinners.

Soon, thanks to the health-care reform act President Obama signed into law Tuesday, Steadwell can piggyback on her parents in one more way: as a dependent on her mother's health plan. The new law requires insurers to allow young people to remain on their parents' policies until their 26th birthday, regardless of their work or marital status.

"I won't have a problem asking my parents for it," Steadwell said while eating lunch with another uninsured friend at Dupont Circle. "They would want me to be safe and covered."

In its bureaucratic way, the government's restructuring of health care sets a new starting point for independent adulthood: no longer at age 18 or 21, but deep into the 20s. The new health-care benefit, to take effect in six months, acknowledges the economic and social forces -- the grim job market and delays in marriage and childbearing -- that have kept the millennial generation, those generally in their 20s, more dependent on their elders than their parents had been.

"The continuing relationship between parents and young adult children is a really momentous change in the operational meaning of being a parent in the early 21st century," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has studied millennials. Parents are shelling out unprecedented amounts to support their adult children, he said. "No one resists or resents it. Young people expect it."

Quick to intervene

For all the praise heaped on millennials, especially for their ease with technology, their independence in other realms of life seems elusive. Among Generation X-ers and baby boomers, anecdotes about young people's dependence on Mom or Dad -- or, seen from another direction, parents' extended role overseeing their adult children -- are ubiquitous: Parents make angry calls to employers or university officials when their child's application has been rejected, or step in to handle a child's bid for a first home.

At Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District, young employees' parents often call to complain about their children's work schedules or demand explanations about hiring decisions. "They'll call and say something like, 'Lucy shouldn't have to work at Christmas,' " said Jennifer Miller, 44, director of talent acquisition and talent management at Sibley. "Or, 'Lucy needs dental insurance -- now.' My parents would never have thought about intervening in my professional life."

Miller said parents' calls about their children's job applications amuse her co-workers. "We laugh about it," she said. "We roll our eyes and someone will say, 'You'll never believe the call I just got.' Someone will say, 'Boss, just a heads-up -- you're going to get a call from the parent of a candidate who's not a finalist.' They even call the CEO's office."

At the University of Virginia, Admissions Dean Greg Roberts said his office notified applicants at 5 p.m. Friday whether they were admitted, so he expects to be deluged with calls on Monday from upset parents. "I see parents calling our office asking questions that the students should be asking," he said. "Eighty to 90 percent of the calls come from parents, not students."

Over his 20 years in admissions at U-Va. and Georgetown and Emory universities, Roberts has seen parental involvement grow dramatically. "By and large, that's a good thing, but there's a point when it's not," he said. "You always hear stories now about parents who call faculty members about a student's grade. And when students visit, the parents introduce themselves first. You wonder about the students' independence."

Washington area real estate agents say they increasingly see otherwise savvy young professionals clinging to their parents when they buy a house. Kay Marlin, a broker at Chatel Real Estate in the District, has seen more young buyers who handle negotiations while in constant contact with their parents.

"I rarely meet the parents, but I hear the questions coming through the kids," Marlin said. "They'll say, 'Well, my mother said to ask this,' or 'My dad said how this should be,' and they want to rewrite the contracts and send the contracts to their parents who are at some high-powered law firm. . . . When I think back to earlier years, the young people I dealt with used to be proud of their independence."

Today's young adults face a harsh economy, especially when it comes to health care: About 13 million, or nearly 30 percent, of 19- to 29-year-olds lack insurance, according to a 2009 report by the Commonwealth Fund. As a result of financial strains, they delay social rites of passages, leading them to tap their parents well into their 20s, Galston said.

For instance, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds living with their parents gradually increased from 8.3 million in 1960 to 19.2 million in 2007, according to the nonprofit Network on Transitions to Adulthood. The group also found that about 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds get money from their parents, and for 40 percent of those young people, it's at least $10,000 a year.

Over time, the age at which young adults marry or have children has also risen: About 45 percent of men and 60 percent of women now marry by age 28, compared with 79 percent of men and 84 percent of women in 1960, the nonprofit group found.

Standing close by

For Bekah Steadwell's parents, the new health-care benefit does not feel too burdensome, if only because they remain so entangled in their adult children's lives. Lou Steadwell, 66, a real estate agent and developer, said he and his wife, Christine Swearingen, a marketing director for a hospital chain, are housing their three daughters and a nephew in their Northwest Washington home.

"The rules were quite different when I was growing up," Steadwell said. "One couldn't wait to get out. When my generation left home, they never returned to live at home."

Bekah, a graduate of Oberlin College, cooks at the Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights and The Looking Glass Lounge in Petworth but has yet to find a job that offers health insurance. "My job is a lot of physical work, and dangerous work sometimes," she said. "If I get hurt, I don't have enough money to pay for anything except a Band-Aid."

Her father, meanwhile, has moved on to a new debate about his role as a parent: His daughter has a hard time catching late-night rides home from work. "I think," he said, "we're going to help her get a car."

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