“Why didn’t you just tell me you wanted me to leave?” says Tripp, the 35-old-yacht salesman (Matthew McConaughey) asks his mother (Oscar winner Kathy Bates) in Failure to Launch. He is puzzled as to why his parents hired a young vixen to lure him out of his comfy little nest in their home.
In last year’s hit romantic comedy, Hitch, "date doctor" Will Smith helped nerdy guys find a woman. This time “intervention" consultant” Sarah Jessica Parker engineers romances so that slugabed sons will move out of home. As usual, the scheme backfires: Paula falls in love with Tripp and tries to back out of the deal a little bit too late… It amounts to a cute romantic comedy with no sex scenes, although some is implied. This is as tame as it gets for Hollywood.
However, Failure to Launch does deal surprisingly well with the complexity of when parents should let go and when kids should leave. The movie initially focuses on Tripp’s need to grow up, but as it progresses, a more nuanced view emerges. His mother’s first answer to Tripp’s question is the old chestnut: we loved you and wanted you to be happy. But then she confesses that she lured him to stay home with daily breakfast and clean laundry so that he would be a buffer between her and dad. “I am afraid of being with my husband,” she sobs.
And Tripp’s mom has a basis for her concerns, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Divorce grew 16 per cent for couples married 30 years or more between 1981 and 1991, even though the overall rate declined by 1.4 percent. And as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement, this may increase even more. In Japan, divorce requested by baby-boomer women is such a phenomenon that there is a TV drama series called “Mature Divorce”.
Why can’t baby-boomer parents let go? Perhaps it has something to do with their obsession with staying young. An empty nest implies that they have reached the sunset of life. Are boomers growing old gracefully? Do they really want the kiddies to grow up and reveal how old mom and dad really are?
Nearly a third of Harley-Davidson riders are now 50 and the AARP, the American group which lobbies for retirees, boasts in its promos that “50 is the new 30”. The AARP magazine has become more like Cosmopolitan, doling out sex advice for “the mature”. Frederica Matthewes-Green wrote an excellent article in the journal First Things in which she said, “Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grown-up responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment… We Boomers identified so strongly with being ‘the younger generation’ that now, paunchy and gray, we’re bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation.”
The good news is that today 20-somethings and their parents communicate better than ever before. In a recent survey reviewed in a Psychology Today article, a whopping 78 per cent said that "close family relationships" are more important than money and fame as a definition of success. But at what cost? According to family therapist Betty Frain, closeness can become a problem. “It becomes hard for these parents to say, ‘I’m the leader in this family and it’s time for you to go.’ We’ve gotten too friendly with our kids.”
Well then, if boomers redefined child-rearing and became “best friends” with their pampered kids, is it any wonder that they unintentionally fostered a new phenomenon: “Boomerang Kids” –- children who come back home after college? According to a recent poll, 63 per cent of college students say they plan to live with their parents. And nearly two-thirds of 20-somethings receive financial support from parents. “Permaparenting” is the label psychologists and sociologists are using for keeping children from growing up.
The cost of dependence is high. Boomers are paying for their children kids until their early 30s and are less able to save for retirement. Well into their late 20s, children are still battling to become financially and emotionally independent.
Many colleges now hire mediators to deal with overbearing parents who do not understand the meaning of letting go. Psychologist Hara Estroff Marano says: “Through 1996, the most common problems raised by students were relationship issues, which is appropriate. The concern is that in 1996 it changed and anxiety overtook relationship concerns and has remained the major problem… The University of Michigan Depression Center, the nation’s first, estimates that 15 per cent of college students nationwide are suffering from that disorder alone.”
Washington Post columnist William Raspberry apologised to Generation X in his commencement speech at the University of Virginia for not instilling the right values that “our parents instilled in us”. Perhaps, though, the problem goes back even further. Frederica Matthewes-Green suggests that the boomers’ parents, the “Greatest Generation”, might have attempted to create a utopia by steering away from the fear, failure and loss that they experienced in the Depression and WWII.
Back to Failure to Launch. As in all romantic comedies, the film closes with Tripp and Paula about to do the happily-ever-after thing. What the film leaves out is Chapter One of their new life: Mom coming over to cook them a nice hot breakfast. Old habits die hard.
Diane Bryhn is a freelance journalist in New York.