Millennial Parents: Hopelessly Devoted to You

After three days spent observing and interacting with 500 Millennials and their parents at George Washington University’s freshman orientation, I now have a better understanding of the parenting relationship that resulted in such a self-confident, community-oriented, civic-minded cohort. The fact that there even is such a thing as “parent orientation” speaks volumes about Millennial parenting.

As a Boomer parent who went to small liberal arts college in the dark ages of 1973, I don’t recall my parents even being interested in what challenges I might encounter at college, much less with the details of registering for the right classes, finding clubs that interest me, achieving a realistic balance of classes and outside activities, resolving issues with roommates or identifying the right career. Of course, my parents weren’t paying more than their mortgage for a college education either — but that is another story.

In the Millennial era, orientation is a 3-day affair with separate events for and parents and students. There were theatrically produced skits on the perils of college life (X-rated for students, PG for parents), speeches from the deans, tours, small group sessions and more. I admire the marketing insight behind the event: Reassure parents and their kids that they great choice and address any lingering buyer’s remorse. I also admire the “target insight”: “Helicopter” parents have a hard time letting go. The skit that evoked the most laughter among parents depicted a mom who arrived on day one with her son’s teddy bear, a super sharpie to mark his underwear and an extra phone so she could leave messages on his phone — to the mortification of her son and the amusement of his new roommates. Another skit “The Little College Student Who Could” modeled good parental behavior: refraining from helping kids register for classes, not offering to bring them home too often, sending too many packages, texts or voicemail messages. I began to wonder, do I (who me?) have issues I don’t even realize I have?

Clearly, this is an issue. As the head of student services informed us, “It’s one thing to call a professor, it’s another to call a boss, so you may as well start letting go now”. How this situation came about is easy to comprehend. Boomer and Gen X parents ran a parenting gauntlet, what David Brooks refers to as the “Achievatron,” to get their kids into a top tier school. They certainly can’t be expected to stop now just as their kid encounters his/her biggest life challenge to date.

Millennials enjoy closer, more friendly relationships with their parents than previous generations. According to Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais:

“Half of all Millennials say they see their parents in person every day, and aided by widely available and relatively inexpensive cell phone service, nearly as many (45%) talk with their parents in the phone daily. Virtually all do so at least weekly. One in five communicates with them by email at least occasionally. These incidences of ongoing parent-child contact are well above those for all older generations of Americans (Pew Research Center).”

Many parents continue to support their Millennial kids well beyond the point when kids used to be expected to be self-sustaining. The traditional hallmarks of adulthood, marriage, children, home buying, are all being delayed. What this new extended “pre-adulthood” means for marketers is anyone’s guess. At minimum, it means extended spending power for Millennials as they continue to draw upon parental subsidies and housing. It also means Millennials have more opportunity to influence parental choices, particularly in the areas they know best, such as technology and entertainment. As one parent put it, “When it comes to college these days, it takes a family.”