The Economic Reality Behind HBO’s 'Girls'

The new show suggests parents might owe their adult children some measure of financial support.

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In the opening scene of HBO’s new show “Girls,” Hannah, a 23-year-old college grad living in New York City, flips out when her parents tell her she’s cut off—they’re not giving her anymore money. As two professors, they simply can’t afford it anymore, her mother says, and besides, her mom wants to afford luxuries of her own, such as a lake house. Why should they continue paying Hannah’s rent, two years after college graduation?

The scene feels familiar to anyone who knows a twentysomething, or who happens to be one. Life is tough for recent college grads: The Pew Research Center reports that employment rates among young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are at an all-time low, at 54 percent, and those who are employed full-time have experienced a bigger drop in weekly earnings (6 percent) than any other age group. And according to the consulting firm Twentysomething Inc., 85 percent of new grads move back home with mom and dad.

“Girls” accurately captures the tension between baby boomers and their struggling offspring: Twentysomethings increasingly turn to their parents for financial support, and many have come to expect it. Hannah is outraged that her parents would even consider cutting her off. She’s so close to creating the life her parents want for her, she argues—don’t they want to help her achieve it? Why aren’t they grateful that she’s not a drug addict, and that she’s actually trying to make something of herself?

Boomers, though, have their own financial stresses to worry about. Many of them have seen their retirement accounts sink over the last several years, and their own job prospects dimmed. Many don’t have the luxury of offering financial support to children, but might be doing so anyway, out of a sense of love (and duty). Married parents might even find that such decisions about whether to support children cause relationship tension, as it does for Hannah’s parents. (Her father is far more open to the idea of continuing to pay her bills.)

The great thing about “Girls” is that we see the conflict from the perspective of Hannah, and not her parents, unlike so much of pop culture, dating back to 2006’s Failure to Launch. Even though it would be easy to dismiss Hannah as a spoiled brat, we’re almost rooting for her parents to continue their financial lifeline, if only because her life seems so dismal otherwise. She has a terrible boyfriend, and her boss fired her for asking for a paycheck after two years of volunteering her services as an intern. Where else can she turn, if not to the two people who love her most?

Research, too, suggests that parents really can make a long-term difference in their children’s lives by offering both emotional and financial support. “Being hands-off and even allowing children to learn by the school of hard knocks when they reach early adulthood is often counterproductive to helping them get ahead,” write Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray in Not Quite Adults. But, they also add, “When parents cover all expenses, they do not foster financial independence.”

That raises the question: For parents who can afford it, do they owe it to their children to offer at least some measure of financial support? How else can struggling twentysomethings get ahead today, given the economic climate? And how can parents lend support without creating spoiled brats who are still living off mom and dad at age 30? Or would even that not necessarily be such a terrible thing?

The show offers a Rorschach test of sorts for people struggling with this tension in their own lives. Boomers who are still reluctantly supporting adult children will likely side with Hannah’s parents, and root for Hannah to find her own footing without financial aid. But twentysomething viewers are probably rooting for the gravy train of support to continue. After all, how else can Hannah afford to finish writing her memoirs?

“Girls” hits the airwaves at what appears to be a unique cultural moment, when twentysomethings are still deep in the post-recession trenches. This year’s graduates already appear to be in better shape than their slightly older peers: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies say they will hire 10.2 percent more grads from this year’s class of graduates compared to the previous year, and they’ll also pay them more. The median starting salary for 2012 graduates will be $42,569, up 4.5 percent from 2011.

If that trend continues, “Girls” might soon seem outdated, referring to a brief period where jobs and pay were scarce for people with fancy college degrees and parental support was practically essential. We can only hope.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer