Are You a Helicopter Parent?

Consider this real-life scenario:

Ashley is completing her freshman year at Neighboring State U. On the phone recently, Ashley told her mom that she was changing her major from political science to athletic training. She explained that she met someone at a party who had just gotten a cool job with a baseball farm club near Neighboring State U.

Ashley was a strong student in high school, involved in a variety of activities. She was well liked by her peers and a good worker at her part-time job as a sales clerk at a clothing store in the mall. She attended a large suburban high school that was academically rigorous, at least for good students like Ashley.

Ashley chose political science as a major because she had heard that was the best preparation for law school. Her stated career goal was to become a lawyer, something she had talked about from middle school on.

Ashley went off to college with 15 hours of college credit, or the equivalent of one full semester of college work. She was aggressively recruited by a number of colleges and universities. At the recommendation of her high school counselor, she applied to six schools. A major factor in her decision was which institution would give her the best deal when it came to financial aid. Ashley was attending Neighboring State U on a financial-aid package of scholarships, grants, and student loans, which her parents, Kathy and Bob, planned to repay themselves. They didn’t want Ashley to start her adult work life burdened with student-loan debt.

Kathy, Ashley’s mom, had attended college for two years and dropped out of college to go to work. She was now a successful insurance professional who had been out of work three times in the last 15 years because of corporate reorganization and downsizing. She had always been able to find another job and enjoyed her current job.

Bob, Ashley’s father, had a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience as an IT professional. After 9/11, he was laid off when his job was offshored to India. It took him 18 months to find another job with comparable pay. The time of Bob’s unemployment was stressful for the whole family.

When Ashley told Kathy about her proposed major change, Kathy’s first reaction was to erupt and say, “How are you going to support yourself with an athletic training degree?” But she restrained herself and told Ashley she would support her in any career choice she made, but she wanted Ashley to do some research and tell her what job prospects she would have with an athletic training major.

A week later, Ashley called Kathy to report in. She said she’d talked with her freshman advisor and the advisor in the athletic training department. She had also talked to some friends who were athletic training majors themselves. Ashley told Kathy she would be able to make $50,000 a year, easy, as an athletic trainer. She would, however, have to get a master’s degree in order to make the big bucks.

Kathy related this conversation to Bob, who did erupt and wanted to call Ashley immediately and demand to talk to her advisor at Neighboring State U. Kathy reminded Bob that he was barred by federal privacy laws from getting any information about Ashley from college personnel. Bob e-mailed Ashley and said he wanted to talk to Ashley and her academic advisor. Ashley replied that she didn’t want Bob talking to her advisor. She said that changing majors was a normal part of college life and that most college students changed majors at least three times. Ashley told Bob it was her life and she knew what she was doing. She said Bob and Kathy needed to “let go of it” and allow her to make her own decisions.

Are Bob and Kathy overly controlling “helicopter parents,” attached to their daughter by the world’s longest umbilical cord, the cell phone? Are they meddling in Ashley’s freedom of occupational choice?

Or are Bob and Kathy worried parents who have a legitimate fear that a huge investment of time and money is in danger of being squandered?

The problem is that none of the well-meaning adults in Ashley’s life—her parents, high school teachers, or counselors—had ever asked Ashley to develop career maturity. Their sole focus had been developing Ashley’s academic maturity. Their goal since elementary school had been getting Ashley into college and making sure she was academically prepared to succeed at college-level coursework. At Ashley’s high school graduation, all the adults in her life congratulated themselves. They had achieved their goal. Career maturity would happen later. If Ashley just got into the “right” college, she would “find herself” and everything would fall in place.

But now things were not falling into place. If anything, they seemed to be unraveling. Bob and Kathy explained to Ashley that they had nothing against athletic training as a career, but they were worried that Ashley had not considered all her options. They were concerned that Ashley was not being realistic about the job market she would face, and they were worried about the cost of Ashley’s education. Bob and Kathy were paying $15,000 per year for Ashley to attend Neighboring State U. This was over and above the amount Ashley was contributing through scholarships. Each additional semester Ashley spent in college deciding what she wanted to do would cost Bob and Kathy $7,500. These factors made them very eager to help Ashley get from point A, going to college, to point B, leaving college and starting a satisfying first career.

Thirty years ago, when Bob and Kathy were in school, this situation would not have been a problem. Ashley could have graduated from college with any major and landed on her feet in the job market. In the 1970s, going to college without a clear goal or understanding of the job market was an acceptable career-planning strategy. No matter what degree you earned or what you majored in, you could have graduated from college and eventually found a college-level job. Your main fear would have been getting “trapped” in a job you didn’t like until you retired at age 65.

All of that has changed. Young adults like Ashley face a very different job market from the one you entered 30 years ago. Management ranks that absorbed liberal arts graduates have been flattened. Large government social service agencies that provided good jobs to your baby-boomer friends have seen their funding slashed. Many routine clerical jobs have been computerized or shipped overseas, and more complex jobs requiring higher education are now being outsourced to other countries as well.

It will take more than a college degree for your child to be successful in today’s economy. Your child will enter a work environment that has been structurally reshaped, on both a national and international level, in the course of her lifetime. And the competition for jobs in this “New Economy” is going to be intense.

What Is the “New Economy”?

The “New Economy” is a term used to describe the U.S. economy since the early 1980s. The New Economy is characterized by advances in technology, changes in government policies, and increased global competition. It is contrasted with the “Old Economy” that greeted college students like Bob and Kathy in the 1970s.

The New Economy has seen the deregulation of entire industries, such as trucking and airlines, resulting in intense competition among the companies that survived. Routine, repetitive jobs that can be performed by technology have been eliminated, and tasks that can be digitized and transmitted over the Internet have been offshored. Cost cutting, hiring freezes, and capacity-management strategies have increased U.S. productivity to all time highs. Businesses are reluctant to hire additional full-time, permanent employees because of the high cost of health-care benefits. Temporary, contract, and contingent workers are often hired to complete projects on an “as needed” basis. Tax cuts have resulted in fewer jobs in education, social services, and government contracts. All of this has dramatically changed the job market your child will enter.

Some of the changes in the New Economy look like this:


Here are some key points to be aware of:

• The United States has moved from an economy built on manufacturing tangible goods, such as steel, textiles, and washing machines, to an economy built on providing services, such as financial, health-care, and software design services. Jobs moved with these changes.

• Job titles are no longer stable. New skill sets are constantly being added to old job titles, creating new jobs like “nuclear medicine technologist” and “network security manager.” Almost every job in every industry has been changed in some way by technology.

• There is little or no job security anymore. The Old Economy expectation of being able to find a secure job with one company that would last until you retired at 65 is simply unrealistic. Instead, there is “employability,” which means having marketable skills that businesses want and carrying those skills from job to job as the demands of the labor market change. It means being able to communicate your skills on a regular basis in job interviews and on resumes.

• Global competition has resulted in many jobs—both blue-collar production jobs and white-collar service jobs—being moved overseas.

• Old Economy companies that promoted on seniority are few and far between. Job performance is the criterion for advancement in most companies today.

• Assembly-line jobs have been automated or shipped overseas to control labor costs. The jobs remaining in the United States are much more likely to be completed by flexible work teams composed of people with a variety of skill sets who must communicate effectively to get the job done.

Given all these changes, what are some common-sense things that you can do to help your child land on her feet in this kind of job market? What are some actions you can take to ensure your college investment pays off in the way both you and your child hope?

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