A friend came visiting the other day, his normally optimistic demeanour not as sunny, his normally upright stance a little stooped. I was starting to wonder what could have gone wrong with this high achiever. He is in his mid-50s, at the top of his profession, completely self-made, happily married, his son is a graduate of a top American university and he lives in an apartment with a grand view of the Mumbai harbour. Judging by all these symbols of modern Indian life, he had "made it". SO why the drooping shoulders, why the clouded face?
"It's my son," he said, staring gloomily into his drink.
"Has anything gone wrong with your son?" I asked, alarmed.
After a long minute of further staring into his glass, he said, "He just won't leave home."
"He is in his late 20s; at that stage, I had moved out of my parents' home and set up on my own, I had made headway in my profession, found myself a wife. My son seem to have no interest in making a mark in any profession - he has no interest in seriously working with me, he has half-heartedly tried but not achieved the formal professional qualifications needed to be a full-time player in my profession. He is not interested in getting married. He continues living at home with us, he does not seem to have any interest in moving out to a place of his own. At his age, I moved out of my parents' home into a paying-guest accommodation and continued to live as a paying guest even after I got married till I could afford a place of my own. But my son does not seem to feel any such pressure."
Then it struck me. I have heard this conversation in the past two years with many other friends, all hard-driving self-achievers in a wide range of professions: some were doctors, others lawyers, others editors of well-known magazines, still others chief executives of public companies. What was in common was that they were all at the top of their professions, all came from modest family backgrounds, they had all risen to the top of their professions by creativity, imagination, drive - and relentless hard work spread over two decades or more. They had paid handsome amounts to make sure that their children had gone to Ivy League American universities for their undergraduate degrees. Now, they all had sons or daughters in their late 20s or early 30s living at home.
As I reflected about this new phenomenon, I realised that friends with such worries were not just in Mumbai or Delhi. One is the finance director and board member of a French government conglomerate; there are more than a few such successful friends in New York; and one even in Tokyo, a board member of a worldwide Japanese media company.
There is a Wiki devoted to helping with this problem: "How to get your adult children to move out". It poses questions such as, "Is your child taking advantage of the mixed feelings you may have about encouraging your child to move out?" On the one hand, you might enjoy their company at home, or you don't want them to struggle on their own; but, on the other, you worry that this is preventing them from being self-sufficient. This Wiki reports that when people ask their children whether they want to move out, they may get this familiar answer that they want to but. These buts could extend to "I am looking for the right job that can really use my talents" (check whether he is really making an effort at job hunting, advises the Wiki), or "I can't afford a place" (is it that your child can't afford a place, or that they can't afford a place as comfortable as your place?).
Haim Omer, a psychologist, says this phenomenon merits being called a "syndrome" and even found a name for it: "entitled dependence". He says that the phenomenon is so widespread that new terms have developed to describe it: "bamboccioni" (big babies) in Italy; "hotel mama" to describe the parental home, in Germany; "boomerang children" in Australia; "parasaito shinguru" (single parasite) in Japan. He says that these young men and women don't leave home and don't get married because "they only want to buy brand names and enjoy themselves and to live, as an ideology, at their parents' expense". He says that this is nothing less than a pandemic. His book, The New Authority: Family, School, and Community, presents a new model of authority in dealing with children for parents, teachers and the community.
There are other versions of this "entitled dependence". One version is when your child, approaching completion of high school, tells you that everyone else in her class is getting admitted to colleges like New York University, Stanford or Harvard. You end up spending Rs 50-60 lakh a year for the next four years to put your child through these expensive institutions. That's also when you realise that admissions to these famous undergraduate programmes are available to whoever is willing to pay the full fees. Another version of this is when a parent borrows Rs 35 lakh plus at 14 per cent interest to put his child through a masters in a British or Australian university. The endgame is that the child returns at the end of the expensive education and stays at home.
Then there is the case of a driven lawyer from a very modest background who made a name and immense wealth for himself handling the hottest cases of the day. When asked what the secret of his success was, his answer, as befitting all self-achiever types is, "It is simple enough, I want money. I work for it and get it. There are many people who want it perhaps more than I do, but they do not work and naturally enough do not get it." When his son returned after an expensive education abroad, with an indifferent educational record after spending seven years there, he pushed him to join his legal practice. The son did this for eight years without any distinction, living with his parents, enjoying the lavish parties they threw, but found the legal profession "pointless and futile". The idling son, who could not find anything interesting in his father's profession, found something completely different to catch his fancy: the independence movement. This "son who wouldn't leave home", turned out to be the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age