Engaging the World: Some Lessons for the Young

March 13, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020


That’s Japanese for “extreme social withdrawal” and is the label for those people, many of them in their 20s and 30s, who shut themselves off from society, live with their parents, refuse to work or attend college, and communicate, when they communicate at all, largely through social media. Up to half a million hikikomori live in Japan, which is a major problem in a land with a growing population of the elderly and a shortage of young workers.

The Japan Times reports that older hikikomori also exist in abundant numbers. Like their younger counterparts, many of them suffer from depression, are ashamed of their societal status, and fear meeting acquaintances who may ask why they are unemployed. 

But are the hikikomori only a Japanese phenomenon?

A 2017 US Census Report reveals some startling statistics regarding our young people and their living conditions. In 2015, a third of adults ages 18–35 lived with their parents, and 1 in 4 young people ages 25–34 (2.2 million) neither worked nor attended a school of any kind. In 2016, more young adults lived with their parents than with a spouse.

This report contains comparisons that suggest our young people are taking much more time to grow up than their parents and grandparents did. In 2005, 35 states reported that the majority of young adults lived independently. Just 10 years later, only six states reported this same majority. From 1975–2016, the number of young women who were counted as homemakers fell from 43 percent–14 percent. This same report reveals that many young adults consider education and employment opportunities important markers of adulthood, but over half believe that marrying and having children have little to do with becoming adults.

Given the boom in the last three years in employment, these statistics have surely changed, yet many of the young undoubtedly remain under their parents’ roof. There should be no onus attached to that situation; one could easily make the case that living together is a wise financial arrangement for parents and children. 

But what of those who live with Mom and Dad, and who don’t work or go to school?

Of all the young people I know, only three fit that description. One served as a Marine in the Middle East years ago, saw combat, returned home claiming he had PTSD, and took up residence in his parent’s basement, where to the best of my knowledge he remains, though his claims for government assistance were denied. Another woman won a suit for sexual harassment while serving in the military, and though she lives independently, she will lose the monies she receives from the government if she becomes gainfully employed. The third is a 22-year-old male with various personality disorders. 

In “Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up … and What to Do About It,” clinical psychologist Mark McConville introduces us to many more young people struggling with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. 

Nick does well in high school, heads off to college, parties and cuts classes, is suspended for his academic failures, returns home, resides in the basement, and refuses to find employment. Kaylee, an otherwise bright young woman, can’t bring her spending habits under control and is constantly running up credit card bills. 

Kyle is terrified of making the leap from high school to college. 

Birdie leaves her parents’ home seeking independence, but financial self-reliance proves more than she can handle, and soon “she was sleeping fourteen hours a day … and was severely neglecting basic self-care.”

McConville believes that these young people and others are failing in three ways to grow up—they lack a sense of purpose, they fail at “administrative responsibility,” which means taking charge of their lives, and they are missing the social skills necessary to interact with other adults. Using these case histories and examples from his own experiences as a parent, McConville offers readers wise advice on easing adolescents into adulthood. 

In “Dear Twentysomething,” a letter near the end of the “Failure To Launch” addressed directly to the young rather than their parents, McConville writes, “Becoming an adult is harder than most of us ever want to acknowledge, and far more difficult than anyone dares to tell you in high school,” then later adds, “You’re human, and this is the crooked path we each follow to our quirky, imperfect, rewarding futures.”

All of our young people might take heart from reading McConville’s wise reflections in this chapter. 

Of course, the majority of young twentysomethings don’t fit these statistics and descriptions. My own four children all graduated from college, were married by the age of 22, and have found rewarding employment. As a result, a platoon of grandchildren now owns my heart, and I can go to my grave reasonably assured that their parents will make their way in the world.

But two points from the above data are particularly dismaying. 

First up are those young people who live at home but neither work nor attend school. Like love, work—even work that is drudgery—contributes to the greater good and should bring some personal satisfaction, if nothing more than a check on payday. To do no work, not even volunteering at the local soup kitchen or public library, takes away the opportunity to feel useful, to be a contributor, to connect with an enterprise larger than the solitary self. In the article from The Japan Times, we meet an older man who lives as a recluse with his elderly mother. She struggles with household chores, yet even there her son refuses to lend a hand, relying instead on government workers to come to the house and perform chores too difficult for her. 

Even more troubling is the failure among the young to equate family and marriage with adulthood. This attitude reflects a sad narcissism, a desire for personal gain—a solid education and lucrative work—but not a willingness to extend the definition of adulthood to the joys, responsibilities, and burdens of being a spouse and a parent. 

Such a disregard for marriage and family doubtless has many contributing factors, among them fear of commitment, the failure to find a suitable partner, the inability to support a family, and a diminished regard for marriage, but there are consequences. Replacement level fertility rates are 2.1 births per woman. In Japan, the birth rate stands at about 1.44 babies per woman, a long-standing circumstance that haunts the Japanese as their aging population must rely on fewer and fewer young people for assistance. Though our situation here is less dire, the United States has for many years experienced a decline in birth rates. In 2016, the fertility level hovered around 1.80 births.

Marriage and child-rearing are major markers of adulthood. That so many of our young people consider them unimportant speaks volumes about the fallen state of matrimony and family life in our culture. 

As for any hikikomori among us, if you are depressed, seek counseling. If you feel lost, get some help. Put down your electronic devices, step outside, and engage the world.

We need you. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.