Failure to Launch

Categories: Counseling

Failure to Launch


In recent weeks, thanks to the Pew Research Group and a host of bloggers we have been told about Failure to Launch Syndrome.  We have been told that 42 million Millennials are living at home. That they are unable or unwilling to do much of anything beyond their selfish desires. You might think this is a serious problem or a natural development depending on your point of view.  The point of this particular article is to help parents and young people think about growing up yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  My goal is to communicate some concepts that will help us be intentional about how we influence emerging adults.  More and more parents and young people are coming into my practice for help because of a failure to launch.

Back to the Future

Back to Future
Back to the Future was a trilogy of movies in the mid 1980’s where an emerging adult travels through time learning life lessons.  My kids love these movies right now.  If you recall, Doc Brown builds a time machine out of a Delorean and sends Marty McFly through time visiting 1885, 1955, and 2015.  These dates could represent the agriculture age, industrial age, and information age. Imagine how helpful coaching advice from each time period would be to a high school student.  The value of information brought back from the future could be invaluable.  Advice might sound like…
Agricultural Age: There is a season for everything, make hay while the sun shines, and you reap what you sow
Industrial Age: Get a good education/trade, get a good job, you will have a good life
Information Age: To be successful you must think critically, produce creatively, and work constantly
 Back to the future time coordinates
Good advice depends on timing.  Growing up in the agricultural age taught amazingly valuable character traits, the same can be said of the industrial age.  Eventually it will be said of the Information age.  But first we must retool our systems and strategies keeping in mind good advice for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.


Childhood     Adolescence     Emerging Adulthood      Adulthood     Older Adulthood

Human and cultural development takes place through stages.  History provides the backdrop for understanding cultural and human development more fully.  During the agricultural age when a child was old enough to work they went to work doing any task they could to help the family survive.  Being productive and working was the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Planting, picking, milking, churning the chores didn’t stop until after dark.  At sunrise it started all over again.   In the Industrial age the economy shifted to factory work.  It was dangerous, required skills, and adults needed jobs so child labor laws were established.  This created a new life stage called adolescence.  We recognized a difference between the skills needed to work on the farm and those needed in a factory on an assembly line.  Adolescence gave young people time to play as a means of growing up.  Affluence gave people time to value creativity.  With so much more time devoted to thinking big ideas were sure to follow.  The information age is technical, creative, and fast paced.  As the information age unfolds we see another life stage emerging.  For many reasons this stage is being called emerging adulthood.   The path to success is nearly invisible.  Without a very clear vision one cannot commit to the serious work of becoming successful.  Play may have been the vehicle of adolescence but it is unlikely to work for highly technical and specialized careers of the information age.  Each age produced a specific set of traits in most people.  One constant across the ages is the act of creation.  The seed must be planted, cared for over time, and eventually a crop produced.
There are always two creations, first we create in the mind and then we create the reality.  If you know what you want and you really want it, you are likely to do what it takes to achieve your goal.  Let me illustrate.  I have many friends who love photography.  They all take very good photos.  Some of them make money with this talent.  What separates hobbyists from photographers?  Income.  A photography business requires doing 1000 things to run a business plus taking great photos.  Hobbyists only like doing the fun part.  Successful business people do whatever the business requires of them to be successful.  They work at it until the vision is fulfilled.

Arrested Development

Today’s school system was built to produce industrial age workers.  It is desperately trying to retool for the information age.  If your school system isn’t year round yet, it is still based on a calendar in the agricultural age.  If your son or daughter wants to be a farmer that is fine.  We need farmers.  Most students do not want to be farmers.  If your teenager wants to be a factory worker that is fine too.  They need to know most of those jobs are in China.  Those in the US are highly automated and require extra training.  Most students don’t know how to do this and the school doesn’t show them.  Those programs were cut.  If your son or daughter wants to do cool stuff on the internet that is fine.  The path to success is very nebulous and requires a personal vision like no other age has required.  If your kids got a vision nothing will stop them.  They will be internally motivated to move past all barriers to achieve the dream.
Here is the thing, a problem doesn’t exist until you say that it does.  You may have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right but that is a long way from admitting “Houston, we have a problem”.  The system isn’t working for a portion of young people and their families.  42 million millennials have stalled out.  They are stuck in a loop between adolescence and independent adulthood.  They are at risk for earning less over their lifetime, draining their parents resources, missing out on the benefits of long term relationships, addiction, anxiety, and depression.  Let’s be clear, a man wants to be more than a pizza delivery boy.  Young people want to be more and don’t know what that is.  They have some dreams that never take shape.  They have a history of short term projects that end with mixed results.  They feel stuck.  They are in a state of arrested development often called failure to launch syndrome.
Parents see their young adult children as special, intelligent, and unique.  They want to help their kids be successful so they come to me for counseling/coaching.  When I started seeing cases where young people were struggling in their teens and 20’s to get traction, find motivation, and pass certain milestones successfully, I was taken aback.  I was surprised that young people who seemed bright, articulate, and confident, would struggle with grades, getting a driver’s license, finding a job, handling responsibilities, or maintaining relationships.  I have learned a lot since then.  Today, I see and understand a confluence of issues that involve school systems, teachers, parents, coaches, and individual traits and choices impacting the launch into adulthood.

Failure to Launch

Premature Launch
Behaviors and issues associated with Failure to Launch Syndrome should be seen on a continuum.  Emerging adults share many of these issues and have for a long time without significant setbacks.  But for 42 million young adults, a critical mass of problems has prevented a successful launch into a big and wonderful world. This is a problem and should be treated as such.  

Failure to Launch Syndrome is characterized by…

  • little interest in independence/self-sufficiency
  • pattern of missed responsibilities
  • lack of motivation
  • quit rather than struggle
  • emotionally and financially draining
  • low tolerance for distress
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • drug use
  • ADHD
  • avoidant behavior
  • lack of persistence
  • limited work ethic
  • lack of purpose
  • searching for meaning
  • limited independence
  • lack of empathy
  • egocentric thinking
  • lack of emotional warmth
  • superficial relationships
  • game playing
  • overcontrolling behaviors
  • violent outbursts
  • enabling family system
  • need skills

Growing Up Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Growing up in the agricultural age taught amazingly valuable character traits, the same can be said of the industrial age.  Eventually it will be said of the Information age.  But first we must make some changes.  One tool that will help young people succeed today is coaching.  Coaching can be implemented quickly.  Coaching can benefit the family system in a few weeks.  In Part II of this series we are going to look at the tasks of emerging adulthood and how to help young people prepare for the world of tomorrow.  Then in Part III we will examine vision and purpose for young adults developing personal leadership.
 If you have concerns about Failure to Launch we can be reached at or (865)384-4864.  Helping You WIN the Fight of Your Life.


Author: Todd Davis, PhD, MFT, LADC

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