URC

Independence and Work Ethic in the Transition to Adulthood:

A Comparison of Two Cohorts

Tracy Nicole Rank
Indiana University

 


Abstract

The mainstream media often portrays Echo Baby Boomers as lazy and unmotivated: overly dependent on their parents and more likely to move back home as adults. Research suggests a variety of factors that may be involved in the Echo Boomers’ return to the nest, including changes in self-motivation, parenting styles, or a change in Echoes’ environments. In addition to quantitative demographic data, the study conducted for this article included in-depth qualitative interviews to explore the significant gulf between common assumptions and generalizations and the actual experiences and attitudes of the Echo Baby Boomers. The results suggest that Echo Boomers have changed from previous generations, but not in the way portrayed by the media, since the changes may drive the Echo generation to greater levels of independence and motivation than Baby Boomers exhibited at the same age.


Independence and Work Ethic in the Transition to Adulthood: A Comparison of Two Cohorts
Introduction

Conventional wisdom says that college graduates are supposed to be self-sufficient. Instead, some reports suggest that 57% of the Echo Baby Boomer generation—young adults born between 1981 and 1988, sometimes referred to as Millenials, the Boomerang Generation, or Generation Y—moved back home with mom and dad following graduation (Nasser, 2005). Although this apparently validates the media portrayal of Echoes as dependent, the move back home seemingly contradicts other claims about this generation. Jean Twenge (2006) suggests that the Echo generation is more independent and more prepared to face the world. Twenge (2006) found that 3 out of 4 college freshmen wanted to earn an advanced degree. For such an ambitious generation, the move back home is puzzling.

The contention between these opposing views—lazy or ambitious—merits further exploration. To investigate this contention, this paper also examines the lives of the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1966). They provide a useful benchmark to evaluate their children in the Echo generation.

Research suggests a variety of factors that may be involved in the Echo Boomers’ return to the nest. This return might be a result of change in self-motivation, parenting styles, or a change in Echoes’ environments.

Self-Motivation, Generational Differences, and Parenting Styles

Some claim that Echoes are less independent than other generations (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, & Settersten, 2005). They tend to work better in groups than alone. They often rely on their parents to help them get through daily tasks (even after an age technically considered “adult”). Compared to previous generations, Echo Boomers have lower self-esteem and self-motivation (Furstenberg et al., 2005).

Changes in parenting styles may explain these generational differences. The book Generation Me, by Jean Twenge (2006), states that the Baby Boomer generation had smaller families and lavished more attention on each child than previous generations. Middle and upper class parents in the Baby Boom generation treated their children like trophies. Baby Boomer parents made sure their children received the best education, participated in many after-school activities, and emphasized education as key to success in life (Twenge, 2006). The overemphasis of education may also explain why Echo Baby Boomers are so competitive, stressed, and driven to succeed (Twenge, 2006).

In middle class families, Baby Boom parents tend to schedule their children’s lives (Lareau, 2003). They use a child-rearing style Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” (Lareau, 2003). In this style, parents assess their children’s skills, talents, and options by training them and taking an active role in the choices they make. However, the book QuarterLife Crisis (Robbins & Wilner, 2001) suggests that this may leave twentysomethings lost when they venture into the unstructured world they find after college graduation. Robbins and Wilner (2001) argue that parents have told their children to dream and dream big. However, after college graduation, twentysomethings are often disappointed with reality when their dreams fail to turn out the way they had imagined. Twenge (2006) notes this leads to depression and higher rates of anxiety among this group.

The Changing World: Economy and Technology

Economic upheaval provides another explanation for this generational change. The mild recession prior to 9/11 coupled with the major economic decline following the attacks severely restricted the job market. When the first graduates of the Echo generation left college, they had diplomas in one hand but no job offers in the other (Robbins & Wilner, 2001). This led Echoes to the next logical solution: return home to live with mom and dad.

Advancements in technology may also explain some of the differences. A constant exposure to technology, also known as visual motor ecstasy, may account in part for the Echoes’ comparatively high rates of depression and anxiety (Kroft, 2005). Rapid technological change has exposed the Echo generation to a fast-paced life and accustomed them to fast results. When Echo Baby Boomers enter the work force, they must adjust to a slower-paced environment with less instant gratification. Steve Kroft reports that the Echoes’ lifestyle makes it difficult for them to think long term; they prefer fast, immediate results (2005). This Echo Baby Boom phenomenon of returning home after college raises several important questions. Have Echoes undergone a major change in lifestyle or have greater media scrutiny and academic study made the lifestyle more readily apparent than in previous generations? Are parents in fact helping more? Is there actually more pressure on the Echo generation?

Method

The purpose of this study was to explore the significant gulf between common assumptions and generalizations and the actual experiences and attitudes of the Echo Baby Boomers. Are there generational differences in the transition to adulthood of white, middle class and upper class individuals? Why are the Echo Boomers returning home after college graduation?

Research Design

After receiving approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), I conducted nine in-depth interviews in Cook County, Illinois. I interviewed members of three different generations for comparisons: Baby Boomers (born in the years 1946-1966), Gen X (born between 1967 and 1980), and Echo Baby Boomers (born between 1981 and 1988). The participants were all white and either middle or upper middle class. The U.S. Census Bureau defines middle class as those individuals whose household income ranges from $57,658 and $91,704 a year (2005). The Bureau classifies as upper middle class those whose household income exceeds $91,704 (2005).

Individuals were interviewed for 60 to 90 minutes independently in a private setting. Each interview was audio recorded and transcribed. To ensure confidentiality, I allowed the participants to pick their own pseudonyms and assured them that I would destroy the recorded audio tapes. In the interviews, I gained a more thorough understanding of each generation’s history, the key milestones in their lives, and the interviewees’ perceptions of when their parents started to treat them as independent adults. After transcribing the interviews, I analyzed each generation’s responses and compared them to find similarities and differences. Each participant also filled out a three-page demographic questionnaire after the interviews.

My research results yielded data on different parenting styles and the resulting effects on child development. Although existing literature provided the foundation for the study, the interview data, interestingly, failed to support the conclusions in the existing literature and media reports about Echo Baby Boomers.

Results

The Motivated Echoes

The Echo Baby Boomers I interviewed reported that they sought employment early even when their parents did not demand it. The enterprising spirit they demonstrated contradicts Furstenberg et al.’s (2005) claims that the Echo generation is less independent. Obtaining a job requires an individual to show initiative, especially if the reason for seeking a job was not solely monetary. Kikki, a college undergraduate, reported that she “wasn’t forced to get a job. It was more of the cool thing to do. I was cool, not adult but almost, like no one else had jobs and stuff.”

In eighth grade, Kikki worked in order to learn responsibility. In the interview, she recalled taking a job to make a name for herself and to take pride in an accomplishment of her own. Cara, an Echo interviewee who is currently a hair stylist, has worked continuously since she graduated from high school. She felt that continuing education in her industry would always be important because, like fashion, techniques for styling hair constantly change. Cara looked for employment early in high school to educate herself about the stylist industry. She sought her first job in the stylist industry to see if she would enjoy that line of work:

I was always interested in hair. . . . I’ve always been creative so it just made me explore and know that’s what I wanted to do. And being that young and getting into that field or being in that atmosphere just helped me decide to give it a try.

Carmen, a college senior, plans to enter a master’s degree program and believes she will ultimately complete either a law degree or a PhD in family studies. She explained her motivation for seeking out employment:

[I wanted] to see how it feels to like make my own money and not have to ask my parents for it. It just made me feel good to pay for a vacation that I planned and that I went [on] with my friends. I just wanted to pay for it myself. And I feel like my first job just taught me so much—just about being independent, being committed, and just being fun by meeting people.

Examples like these suggest that the Echo generation may not fit its lazy reputation. The Echo generation group in this study seemed responsible and hard working. Although these three individuals may not represent all Echoes, their presence casts doubt on the blanket statements about the dependency of the whole Echo generation.

The Echoes in the study were more motivated to go out and conquer the working world. Where the Echoes quickly modeled themselves after their parents’ industrious lifestyles, the Baby Boomers seemed to have acquired that lifestyle later in life. The Echoes in the study had more drive at the same age than Baby Boomers did.

Housewives Change into Working Women

Pop media and pop sociologists recently discovered a new trend of “hovering” or “helicopter” parents. This theory states that parents are becoming overly involved in their children’s lives. Amy Hume from Indiana University’s Career and Development center noted “there definitely is more involvement [by parents] than there was 20 years ago” (Cutter, 2007). As with the generalized statements about lazy Echo Boomers, the media and some sociologists may overstate parental involvement in an attempt to garner additional media attention or profit from the sale of sensationalized news. According to my data, these “hovering” parents do not exist in all families.

The Echo Baby Boomers that I interviewed felt that their parents were not actually involved enough with them. Most Echoes had two working parents, unlike the stay-at-home mom lifestyle that most Baby Boomers experienced (Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006). Lareau (2003) suggested that this two-income household norm has forced children to grow up and be more self-sufficient at a younger age, costing them at least some typical childhood experiences. My data agrees, but also suggests that this lessened parental influence drives children to take on adult roles at an earlier age. This could explain why the Baby Boomers have more of a group work ethic than the Echo Baby Boomers, who think and work more independently.

Most Baby Boomers had one parent at home. Unlike their parents, significant numbers of Baby Boomer women moved into the labor force (Hicks, 1999). As more women took full-time work, they left more houses empty. According to GiGi, now that parents are at work, they have little time to be parents. As a stay-at-home mother, GiGi believes that “parenting has changed,” but for her, family must still come first:

I think parents now are part-time parents [though] not all of them, you know. I can’t generalize, but from a lot of what I see, you know society on the whole has changed.

Researcher: Is there anything in society that has changed that is making that happen? Is it just expectations?

GiGi: Greed! I really think greed. I think we have become such a greedy society—that it’s the bottom line.

Although GiGi believes that greed is the root of the problem, not everyone’s drive for success revolves around money. Some parents may simply want more for their families then they had when they were children.

The Echoes took a different view of the two-parent working family. Carmen, whose parents both worked, faced a number of other family issues. Her experiences help to explain why Echoes tend to be more individualistic and grow up faster. Carmen described her first big responsibility:

Researcher: Can you give me one example about when you had your first big responsibility?

Carmen: [S]ince my mom is an alcoholic, I took care of her kids for the first like year. She had my one sister when I was in 8 th grade and I did everything with her. [My mom] really just wasn’t there . . . .

Researcher: Going back to when you were helping your sister out, at that point did you feel more independent or adult-like?

Carmen: Oh definitely, I was very “parent-ified.”

Although Carmen’s case is extreme, it still shows that the characterization of Baby Boomer parents as over-involved may not be entirely true.

Kikki is another Echo who grew up in a home with two working parents. She grew up in a house that believed “work was always more important” than family, and remembered “it was always fun to come to my house after school because ‘my parents were never home after school.’”

Baby Boomer GiGi points to the lack of parental role models as the primary problem. She believes that families that have two working parents force children to figure out too much about how to live life on their own:

I think that unfortunately there is a multi-faceted cause-and-effect type thing. Not only do children have to worry about so much media information, but I don’t think there are enough parents at home. . . . I think they’re kind of left . . . to fill time until their parents can spend time with them.

GiGi recounted that when she grew up, that the lack of parental guidance was “something [her generation] didn’t have.” Echoes learned independence and self-reliance at a young age. Contrary to the media perception of them as burdened by over-involved parents, Echoes learned to trust and depend on the one person that has always been there for them: themselves. Some researchers claim that these traits make the Echo Baby Boomer generation selfish and narcissistic (Twenge, 2006).

Discussion

This research misses the point, however, and leaves the real question unanswered. If the Echoes are not spoiled or lazy but driven, and their parents are not overly involved but too uninvolved, then why do Echo Boomers return home after college graduation and take longer to marry and have children? The answer, perhaps, is simple: Echo Baby Boomers must adapt to a world undergoing rapid change due to increases in educational competition and technology.

The Changing World around Us

The media often exaggerates generational differences. People in any generation will adapt to their social and economic environments. Broad generalizations about the Echo Boomers often overlook the pace of underlying socioeconomic change. The generations may not have changed, but their need to adapt to their environment has. This gives the outward appearance that each generation differs greatly, when the changing world actually creates the different outcomes. A shifting, increasingly technological and interconnected economy might make Echoes more driven to attain success.

Technological Differences

According to Steve Kroft, the Echoes appear to work less, yet expect immediate results (2005). However, this generation grew up during the technology boom (Hicks, 1999), and became accustomed to fast results and the instant gratification of technology. Kikki explained that with technology so close, “it’s harder to be independent [earlier in life] now.” Although technology has made growing up easier (and perhaps, according to Kikki, even spoiled), GiGi reasoned that the technology boom might cost today’s children some of their sense of identity and accelerate their exit from childhood. She worries that unlike when she was young and “still had the ability to have this [sense of] innocence,” today’s kids “can’t go a day without being flooded with every little iota of information,” a burden that she never faced.

Carmen believes that one major difference that separates her Echo generation from the Baby Boomers is technology. She thinks, “our [Echo] generation is completely advanced and we’re like the, you know, the Internet generation and everything is totally different from our parents growing up.”

Although technology makes life much easier, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Echo Boomers all recognize that it may have other effects as well. Technology combined with the increased focus on individual success and growth may rob children of some of their innocence and imagination. Technology is not the only area where Echoes have had their childhood shortened. The sharp increase in educational competition—and the extension of that competition to high schools, elementary schools, and even preschools—has children worrying far earlier and far more about their educational and career opportunities than in previous generations.

Education and Competition

For the Baby Boomer generation, high school was mandatory for success, and college was generally optional. However, for the Echoes, today’s society now perceives a college degree as mandatory for success. A greater number of students today seek bachelor’s degrees than ever before, according to the Census Bureau (2005). “Three out of four American college freshmen said they wanted to earn an advanced degree” (Twenge, 2006). Again, the generations recognize their differences. GiGi discussed the differences she in the competitive pressures to go to college today:

[T]here was still pressure, but [back when I was in high school] you had the opportunity to say, “Okay, I’m going to go to college or I’m not made to go to college.” I’ll go out there and find an opportunity where I can work into something, apprenticeship programs or whatever. I think today that’s very limiting . . . I think the kids today start feeling the pressure very early on, very early in high school to make grades and to get into the schools.

Competition at virtually every level of education is on the rise and forcing children to make important decisions about adulthood earlier. With the earlier decisions come the expectations of responsibility. To succeed, Echoes must compete from a younger age and cannot afford laziness or a lack of motivation. The competitive constraints placed on Echoes tend to disprove the popular media portrayal of this generation (Twenge, 2006).

Sensationalism sells, and the media has a way of turning small, disconnected bits of information into large stories. The media description of Echo Baby Boomers is too simplified. Although some of the information that they present may be true, the media’s packaging of Echo Boomers into marketable sound bites and stories tends to exaggerate the worst points. Some sociologists fall into this same trap. Nasser (2005) claimed that parental over-involvement has spoiled the Echoes. However, by conducting nine in-depth interviews and collecting demographics through surveys, I was able to gather data suggesting a more nuanced view of the Echo Baby Boomers. My research suggests that socioeconomic factors may better explain why the Echo Baby Boomers seem so dependent on their Baby Boomer parents.

The technology revolution has fueled the increased competition for jobs and education (Hicks, 1999). This boom and resulting information overload has caused many Echo Baby Boomers to live a faster-paced life, compressing childhoods and costing them some level of innocence and identity. Building a successful, stable career takes longer, and the Echo generation takes longer to get married, have children, and settle into a “real world” career. Compared to earlier generations, the Echo generation faces more competition earlier, generally needs more education, and must compete with more people for more demanding job positions.

My data can only suggest that existing research and media depictions of Echo Baby Boomers are inaccurate. My sample was statistically small, only included data from Cook County, Illinois, and primarily consisted of upper middle class, white citizens. However, the vastly different results in my research point to a need for both further research into this generation and fewer prejudicial generalizations. Additional quantitative and qualitative data would likely prove very insightful.

In the end, my research hints at a significant gulf between media assumptions and generalizations and the actual experiences and attitudes of the Echo Baby Boomers. In the future, I hope that both sociologists and media consider a wider and more nuanced view before stereotyping based on anecdotes.

References

Bianchi, S., Robinson, J., & Milkie, M. (2006). Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (Rose Series in Sociology). New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

Cutter, C. (2007, January 9). Helicopter parents on the rise. Indiana Daily Student. Retrieved February 12, 2007, from http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=39986.

Furstenberg, F., Rumbaut, R., & Settersten, R. (2005). On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hicks, E. & Hicks, R. (1999). Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: Understanding the Generational Differences that Divide Us. Wheaton, IL: Focus on the Family Publisher.

Kroft, S. (2005, September,4). The Echo Boomers. CBS News. Retrieved September 12, 2006, from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/10/01/60minutes/main646890.shtml.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life. Berkeley and

Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Nasser, H. (2005, January, 10). Why Grown Kids are Moving Back Home. USA Today. Retrieved September 10, 2006, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-01-10-cover-kids_x.htm.

Robbins, A. & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife Crisis. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before . New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

United States Census Bureau. (2005). Educational Attainment. U.S. Census Bureau Database. Retrieved April 21, 2007, from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/educ-attn.html.

 

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