Parents of millennials are too involved in their kids’ careers

They need to do this on their own.
They need to do this on their own.
Image: Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon
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Parents: butt out of your adult children’s job searches.

This may seem obvious. But it’s not, in the context of the wildly inappropriate parental intrusions that hiring managers see with astounding regularity. Parents are calling to arrange interviews for perfectly functional adult children, inserting themselves into schedule or salary negotiations, and haranguing a manager by phone or email for failing to hire or promote their precious offspring.

In a misguided effort to help their children gain short-term achievement, hiring managers say, many parents unwittingly cripple their adult sons’ and daughters’ ability to succeed on their own. What’s more, these unhealthy entanglements in their adult child’s professional life are preventing parents from being supportive in ways that actually do help their child—who is, in fact, an adult.

Much too much

In a 2016 survey of helicopter parenting in the workplace from the staffing firm OfficeTeam, senior managers reported parental intrusions of astonishing cheek: asking to sit in on job interviews, bringing cakes to potential employers, calling the hiring manager in the guise of an employment reference to heap praise on their son.

After media reports of meddling parents in the workplace started surfacing after the recession of the early 2000s, Michigan State University researcher Phil Gardner surveyed 725 employers about whether they’d seen such behavior. A full 31% of respondents had a parent apply for a job on behalf of their adult child, according to a 2007 report. Another 15% of the employers fielded complaints from parents about passed-over children, 9% had a parent try to negotiate the new hire’s salary or benefits, and 4% actually attended job interviews alongside their adult children. The financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of texting, which enabled constant communication between parents and grown kids, has only intensified the trend.

On this point hiring managers are explicitly clear: absolutely nothing good comes of a parent getting involved in a child’s job search.

“No employer is going to think this is okay,” said Alison Green, a consultant who writes the popular blog Ask a Manager. “Managers really need to refuse to engage if a parent contacts them, assuming it’s not to relay some sort of serious emergency with their kid.”

Casey Newton, an editor at the Verge, received a baffling direct message on Twitter in 2016. The tone of the message was accusatory. It was “something along the lines of, ‘You have a lot of nerve getting someone’s hopes up like that,’” Newton recalled. He’d never met the woman, but her last name looked familiar. A quick check of her social media profiles confirmed she was the mother of a job candidate Newton had recently passed over.

“It remains the craziest thing that has ever happened to me as a manager,” Newton said by phone from San Francisco. He wrote back to the woman that her son was a talented journalist with an undoubtedly bright future, and that out of respect for the candidate (whom Newton believes was unaware of his mother’s efforts, and would probably have been appalled by them) he was not going to discuss it any further.

Don’t take your parents to work

Some companies have opted to embrace their new hires’ close relationship with their parents. Corporations like Google and LinkedIn launched “Take Your Parents to Work” days for employees to show off their offices. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi calls job candidates’ parents (paywall) to pressure their children to take her offer.

It’s worth pointing out that the majority of millennial job applicants don’t want parents meddling in their careers. A 2013 global study from PWC (paywall) found that only 6% of recent US college graduates wanted prospective employers to send their parents a copy of their offer letter. Just 2% of young employees wanted their parents to get a copy of their performance review. 

Still, the number of parents who actually need copies of their adult children’s performance reviews or offer letters is zero percent, and these rare intrusions aren’t as rare as they used to be. Outlandish parent stories land in Green’s inbox occasionally, she said. Ten years ago, she’d never heard of the phenomenon at all.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, is not surprised. Stories of parents calling to demand changes in students’ grades or roommates became an oddity in the late 1990s, with deans laughing about it at faculty meetings. By the time Lythcott-Haims left Stanford in 2012, it wasn’t funny anymore. She estimates that by the time of her departure, 35% to 40% of incoming students’ parents had an unhealthy degree of involvement in their lives.

Not all students minded.

“Those who aren’t mortified are instead grateful to have the help. It leads to a tremendous sense of entitlement—someone will always be here to handle the tough stuff for me—and leads to no skills. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. For an achievement-obsessed parent, excessive homework help or lobbying a coach for more playing time when kids are young can easily evolve into calling a university or an employer in adulthood.

The end game

Absurd as the most extreme cases may sound, these parents are ultimately motivated by the understandable desire to help their child succeed. Today’s millennials are entering a job market with more student debt and fewer full-time paid opportunities than their parents had. The urge to help is inevitable.

Yet the more involved a parent gets, the more they undermine their child’s shot at a meaningful life. Excessive help deprives children—both the adult and the child variety—of intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, and the basic skills to get things done.

Ally Mahoney is a single mother and “an admitted helicopter parent” who lives in Chandler, Arizona. Her daughter was a shy child, and Mahoney didn’t hesitate to step in and contact teachers on her behalf for deadline extensions and homework questions. It was what she thought a good mother should do, and her daughter didn’t object. “She was never, like, ‘Butt out,’” Mahoney said. “She probably used it as a crutch: ‘well, my mom will jump in.’”

Her daughter struggled academically in college and left Arizona State University without graduating. Her social anxieties have intensified as she’s gotten older, and job interviews proved impossible without earlier practice in such one-on-one interactions. Now 24, she lives with her mother and works full-time at an insurance agency, in a job Mahoney found through a family friend that allowed her to bypass an interview. Where Mahoney once feared what might happen if she didn’t help her child, she now blames herself for helping too much: “If she’s not equipped for the real world, that is my fault.”

Few parents are as willing to be honest and self-aware on the record as Mahoney. Her decisions were about what she believed was best for her daughter, she says, but they were also about her own standards of what being a good parent means, and how she would feel—and what others might think—if she failed to meet them.

“I can’t imagine any scenario where I would let her fall on her face so she could learn a lesson. I don’t know how good or healthy that is, but that’s just me,” she said. “Ultimately, as a parent your children are a reflection of you. There’s always that need to control. That shouldn’t matter, but it did, or does.”

On the long-term consequences of this, Lythcott-Haims is blunt: “We’ve forgotten this very important fact: you have to remember that one day you will be dead and gone. When we over-help and become the person who does the heavy lifting and thinking in our kids’ lives, they will be totally lost and abandoned when we no longer can.”

A parent’s job is not to ensure that a child succeeds at all costs. It is to help a young person develop the skills to pursue success on their own. Ideally, these lessons start early: having a child fill out his or her own application to summer camp, letting him or her take the lead in securing a part-time summer job. Teaching a child how to manage challenges independently is where a parent’s experience and patience are truly valuable.

And when your child pushes back against your efforts to get involved, listen, back off, and give yourself a pat on the back. A child mortified by her parents is a child in the process of becoming her own person, and self-direction and motivation are far more attractive to most employers than a candidate who expects to be led.

“Most employers are looking for employees who can speak for themselves and make a case for themselves,” Newton, the Verge editor, said. “If a parent contacts an employer thinking—well, I honestly have no idea what they would be thinking—it makes the candidate look like a child.”