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The Dangers of Adult Allowances

Subsidizing a “failure to launch” child can prove the riskiest of businesses

Lisa Smith (not her real name) had to pull over to the side of the road because she couldn’t see through the tears while thinking about Thomas Gilbert Jr. “When I heard the story about the adult son who killed his father over his allowance, I had a sick feeling,” the mother of two from Pennsylvania writes. Lisa is referring to the horrific case of the 30-year-old, Princeton-educated son of a hedge-fund manager who in January allegedly murdered his father, Thomas Gilbert Sr., because he had reduced his son’s allowance. Like the Gilberts’, Lisa’s family’s wealth is relatively new; perhaps unlike the Gilberts, she has a stronger sense of her son’s instability.

“My son Jake works for the family business, and whatever we give him isn’t enough,” Lisa says. She loves her son but fears his violent temper and has had to confront some harsh truths. “He lives at home, we pay for a new car every two years, and he says his father underpays him. But he won’t go and work for someone else.” Jake had just broken into his mother’s trust fund and taken $11,000 for incidentals; he refused to pay it back, saying he didn’t “owe” them anything. That was at the heart of their recent blow-up. “The fights with his father are unbearable. I know he should be on his own, but I’m so frightened of what will happen if we cut him off.”

According to a recent Pew Research study of more than 2,000 adults, nearly 1 in 5 between the ages of 18 and 34 are getting financial help from their parents—sometimes a lot of help. And 3 out of 10 between the ages of 24 and 35 are living at home, the highest number since the 1950s. The kids call it “being on the payroll.” And the grim joke among parents goes something like this: “What does your son do? “He’s a waiter.” “A waiter?” “Yes, he’s waiting for me to die.”

Social disgrace: The Rich Kids of Instagram document their every lavish expenditure online, much of which comes courtesy of family money

Social disgrace: The Rich Kids of Instagram document their every lavish expenditure online, much of which comes courtesy of family money

The subject, say therapists, is becoming increasingly fraught. Jane Greer, Ph.D., a Manhattan psychologist, says her clientele, generally the wealthy and the super-wealthy, are preoccupied with their offsprings’ failure to launch. “Parents who perceive themselves as excellent nurturers—far better than their own parents-—don’t want to see that the logical extension of nurturing is dependency,” she notes.

 Some observers detect a decided difference between parents with old money and those with new. A tradition exists among many of those with inherited wealth to help their kids, but the money is much more conditional. It pays for tuition and camps, bestowed on the children or grandchildren; perhaps they provide grander real estate than their kids could otherwise afford. But there is more of a sense that the children are custodians of their parents’ wealth, not owners of it. New money is much more open-ended, Greer says. “It’s more like, ‘Here’s your allowance, have fun in St. Bart’s.’ ”

Sally Koslow, the author of Slouching Towards Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up, tends to agree about the lack of preset conditions, particularly among those whose affluence is first or maybe second generation. “People are so deeply invested in their kids, they admire their kids’ champagne taste,” she says. The problem is, they have Bud Light budgets.

Social disgrace: The Rich Kids of Instagram document their every lavish expenditure online, much of which comes courtesy of family money

From The Rich Kids of Instagram

Of course, over the past few years the economy has been brutal to new graduates, and it’s common for kids of means to work at post-college internships that pay nothing or next to nothing. As a certain mother, whose husband is one of the best-selling authors of our time, put it to me, “My son chose a career in the arts, and I suppose I think of supporting him as a kind of sponsorship.” I point out that her own husband made a good living, and then a great living, as a writer—rare, God knows, but it happens. “We would never have dreamed of asking our parents for money,” she admits. “But it’s a different time. I worry that my husband and I live in a townhouse, but without our help, our son could end up living out of his car.” Another parent of a son “in the arts” told me she has tried repeatedly to cut him off. “But then, there will always be some dire emergency,” she says. “It’s just hard not to put more money in his account when the balance is low.” He is in his late twenties. “Maybe in a few more years . . . ” she adds wistfully.

Those who take allowances often seem not so much guilty as resentful, notes Richard Kirshenbaum, a New York Observer columnist whose new book, Isn’t That Rich? Life Among the 1 Percent, is out in June. “I hear these wealthy adult children complaining about how they have no freedom, how their family controls them through money,” he says. “I’m always asking things like, ‘Why don’t you take your own vacation?’ and the answer is, ‘Well, Father would be really upset.’ ”

Adults I talked to who received parental largess had many interesting justifications, from “I’ve helped my parents out when they’re sick” to “My parents wouldn’t want me to work at something I didn’t enjoy” to “Don’t my kids deserve the same kind of private-school education I had?” (To which the answer might actually be: No.) But what comes through in all these discussions is the inescapable sense of doubt about their own competence. When you’re 35 years old, nothing says “I am a fraud” like a Birkin bought with Daddy’s stipend.

Social disgrace: The Rich Kids of Instagram document their every lavish expenditure online, much of which comes courtesy of family money

From The Rich Kids of Instagram

And therein lies one of the consequences of parents and adult children being enmeshed by money, says Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the fact that so many parents help out a little. (According to Lieber, approximately 20 percent of checks to private schools are written either by trust funds or people who are not the parents of the kids.) The problem, Lieber says, is the message to those in “the Lucky Sperm Club” is that if they do not live in the style they have grown up in, they are in some way failures—which may account for studies saying the rate of depression and anxiety is higher among the children of the affluent.

“The saddest thing to me,” says Lieber, “is that Tommy Gilbert Jr. was going around telling people he was starting a hedge fund. Here was this person who, despite his Princeton education, would have been better off working as a music teacher or a carpenter somewhere. But this was the life he knew, and if the stories are correct, he lived with a sense that he disappointed everyone. There are lots of one percent kids who are not violent, who don’t have what is probably his underlying mental illness, who nevertheless live like that.”

There is, I think, something else going on among this generation of well-off parents. The children feel guilty (whether they admit it or not), but they’re not the only ones. If our career focus has made us stint on time with our own children, at least we can continue to cough up money. This, at least, is my thought every time my 13-year-old son says things like, “Would you let me be a 40-year-old living at home, playing Civilization and eating nachos in bed?” His main goal in life is to torment me, of course. But I always read something else into his question: “Will you love me no matter what?” Why does he doubt it? And what can I do to reassure him at this point? Given my own predilection for putting work first—I have missed more than my share of soccer games— am I sure of my ability to say no to him if he took longer than I’d like to launch?

Perhaps it is that sense of doubt in her own parenting (she came from a childhood of poverty and abuse, and she has stayed in a turbulent marriage largely for the money) that keeps Lisa shelling out the dough. Certainly her son feels both his mother’s guilt and his father’s disappointment. She says, “Every day my son is reminded that he didn’t make it on his own, and his father lets him know he’s not the man he expected him to be.”