Is there a Connection Between “Safe Spaces” and “Failure to Launch”?

The phrases “Trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” seem to be all over cyberspace these days. Advocates of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” believe it’s a right to be protected from intolerance in the form of offensive words or ideas.

Critics on the other hand say that it’s gone too far, that the word offensive has come to mean “Anything I dislike or disagree with.” They point out that attempts to shield young people from anything deemed offensive, particularly on college campuses, is actually harmful, affecting them later in life when they have to live in a world filled with harsh realities.

Whatever perspective you might have, Universities and Colleges are certainly taking it seriously. Students demand it. It has reached the point that speakers who were scheduled to address college students will sometimes have their speaking events canceled because they express offensive opinions.

At the same time that “safe spaces” are becoming increasingly popular, there are an ever growing number of students who report feelings of depression. In fact, depression has now been identified as a major cause of Academic Withdrawal according to this study. This article from sums it up pretty well. Whether college students are more willing to report feelings of depression or depression is actually on the rise, one thing is certain, it’s an issue that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Another term that has increased in popularity, along with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” is “Failure to Launch.” This phrase is used to describe a troubling trend among Millennials who delay the natural transition to adulthood. Or in other words, they are more inclined to move back into their parent’s basement when life proves more difficult than they anticipated. Though young men and women today are moving back in with their parents, the practice wasn’t exactly unheard of prior to the Millennial Generation, however there is something very different about the current trend. A stark enough difference that for the first time, the mainstream media is taking notice. What’s significant about that? Again, many are struggling with depression.


More and more is being said and written about Millennials. Many articles about Millennials have been written in major media outlets, for instance, the Washington Post’s article about why Millennials are so depressed. Simon Sinek talks for 15 minutes straight in this video describing the challenges millennials (and the businesses that employ them) face. Although a few of the articles and videos express optimism about the opportunities and strength of Millennials, most focus on one big concern: Are Millennials prepared for life? The rough consensus seems to be mostly no. True or not, as a whole Millennials face a lot of challenges, most of which are not of their own making. With the many challenges that the world faces, are Millennials prepared to do their part in the inevitable crises of the future? When viewed from the perspective of older generations, “safe spaces” and “Failure to Launch” is not a promising start.  

Safe Spaces and Failure to Launch

What is behind the unprecedented creation “safe spaces” on college campuses? What is causing young people, (especially young men) to give up and move back home, abandoning prospects of success and independence? Is there a connection between the two? To explore the answers to these questions, we need to understand the reasons that are driving young people to surrender their independence, including independence of thought.

One of the reasons given by commentators for why Millennials are so easily “triggered” is they lack emotional resilience. In other words, they argue, Millennials are “emotionally fragile.” Even the villain “Lord Business” in the popular 2014 award-winning film “The Lego Movie” takes a few swipes at Millennials for this lack of resilience when Lord Business states, “I never got a trophy just for showing up!” and “I’m not some special little snowflake.”

Emotionally Fragile

If we listen closely to what people mean when they talk about “emotional fragility”, they’re talking about the difference between someone who can handle difficult emotions and maintain their composure and those who can’t. Generally when someone is referred to as being “emotionally fragile”, it’s because they lost control and let themselves be carried away by their emotions when the situation they experienced did not warrant such an extreme reaction. In other words they had a “melt-down” no objectively good reason.

“Triggered” is the new phrase many now use to describe emotional fragility. However, there is another emotional reaction to overwhelming situations: shut down or avoidance. This is where “Failure to Launch” seems to come in. Instead of being openly and loudly “triggered”, some individuals back away from the situation they find emotionally overwhelming. Are they any less “fragile” than their “triggered” counterparts? There really isn’t much difference in the cause of these two different reactions. Although the reactions are different, it looks like it is their inability to emotionally cope with life situations that causes more Millennials to be “triggered” to seek “safe spaces” and to experience “Failure to Launch.”

So is “Failure to Launch” a result of “emotional fragility”? That’s a difficult question to answer scientifically; the research that is available to us now is just not sufficient. But, we can look at the culture Millennials are raised in. Many of the messages that are constantly sent Millennials way are a variation on one underlying theme: Millennials need to be shielded and protected. More so than any of the previous generations. Whether that message is true or not doesn’t matter, if Millennials and those who are responsible to guide them to adulthood believe it. Indeed, concern over the self-esteem of this generation could not have been greater.

Instant Gratification and Technology

Are there other factors involved? Has instant gratification (see Simon Sinek’s video) programmed Millennials to be more easily “triggered” and in need of a “safe space” to retreat to? Or perhaps the personal level of control that technology has made available in cyberspace, through video games and social media, has given an generation an easy way to escape from unpleasant realities. Far from being separate, these theories support the idea that Millennials are more emotionally fragile then their older counterparts. If that is true, would anyone be surprised that Millennials experience frustration and anxiety when they have been taught to expect direct control over their experience in life? 

As Millennials now coming of age will soon discover, if they haven’t done so already, there are always people who disagree with them, no matter how vehemently they insist that they are right. Most jobs that are available to them, are entry-level, most likely minimum wage and its the nature of most jobs is that they are often hard, boring and monotonous at least some of the time. It seems that whatever tools Millennials have been given to cope with mental and emotional stress of life are in many cases insufficient.

Depression and Anxiety

As mentioned previously, depression is cited as a major cause for “Academic Withdrawal.” Depression is more than “feeling down”, it involves a change in the brain chemistry that creates a more pervasive and enduring state of hopelessness. Factors that lead to depression include genetics, changes in hormone levels, certain medical conditions, stress, grief and difficult life circumstances. 

Depression is bad enough, but what happens if anxiety gets added to the mix? The link between anxiety and depression has already been well established, see here. Anxiety disorders can lead to depression. And what causes anxiety? A threat to our well-being, perceived or real, that we are not certain we are able to effectively handle.

The way we perceive and handle personal stress and difficult situations depends upon our believe in our own ability to handle them effectively. That confidence comes if we have experienced ourselves as able to effectively solve life problems. It comes by falling down and learning to get back up and then carry on in spite of the discomfort. These experiences teach us that its not the end of the world if when we fail.


If hearing an opposing viewpoint is enough to send a person scurrying to a “safe space” because they were “triggered”, imagine the emotional devastation getting a D in Biology or a reprimand from the boss would cause.

If finding a way to stay in the “comfort zone” is the only strategy they have developed to cope with anxiety, then moving away from home, going to college and starting a career, with the expectation that others will shield them from discomfort is going to inevitably create the stress and “difficult life circumstances” associated with anxiety and depression. 

No wonder it all seems so overwhelming! If that is how life is expected to be, there will be high levels of anxiety and depression! And with no effective tools to cope on their own, what would be more natural than to head back to that most comforting of all “safe spaces”, home! Stay there long enough…“Failure to Launch.” 

It appears that, at least on the surface, for many Millennials, “safe spaces” and “Failure to Launch” are not so different after all. The good news is that help is available and with the right kind of support, anyone who is motivated can develop the tools necessary to become happy, healthy, contributing members of society.



Eric Hatton has spent most of the last six years working as a field staff in wilderness therapy where he coached students on primitive fire skills, making and setting traps and other important wilderness skills. He also coached staff as they learned leadership skills and as they learned to disrupt dysfunctional behavior in the students. Eric loves brainstorming with people. He loves to help people organize their thoughts and change their dreams and desires into tangible, achievable goals. He loves to help people to discover their passions and to help them find ways to use their passions to realize their goals. He is passionate about building great teams and organizations and helping others succeed.