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Let the floating begin

The rub for parents: How long does it last?

The Observer offers felicitations to all freshly minted college graduates and their parents for surviving the ordeal. I'm talking as much about the ceremonial bloviation on diploma day as the previous four years.

Given the scandalously short academic year, many of the little tykes have already deposited their BAs in their sock drawers. Some will streak to Wall Street for a piece of the action. Some will choose the weird world of graduate school over real life and pursue a really useful PhD in Elizabethan drama. Others will enter the workforce as proles, bent on climbing out of the mines into the sunlight of the executive dining room.

But there's another cohort, a huge one, that interests me far more. The floaters. I define floating as subsistence living while you decide what to do with your life. It's the life without focus that unfolds while you're chasing the focus. It's a sunny exercise with a dark underbelly.

Floaters fill the ranks of Starbucks baristas. They become Kinko's cadets and wait tables and work the shelves at Borders.

They earn just north of minimum wage and work part time in exchange for the freedom to ponder the universe and participate in the excellent pursuit of fun.

Some float because they can't think of anything else to do. Many are middle-class kids who enter the fray lacking grit or healthy ambition. They're not spoiled, but they're soft. Most will get grit but it will take time.

Others float with purpose. They float while writing the great American novel, their first screenplay, their early poems. They float while they're sculpting and hatching a dot.com. Some will return to grad school with drive. They float, in short, on their way to achievement. Both tribes look identical now but will part ways soon.

True floaters float until they conclude that poverty is overrated -- an epiphany, parents fear, that will arrive around 2035. For now, these kids want to keep their options open. They want to explore life. Most are willing to play without the net of a parental checkbook.

Good for them. Growth takes time. No one becomes interesting overnight. I'm still a sucker for the frayed image of a kid working for passage on a tramp steamer that travels the globe, and I've always worried about the ones who know on graduation day what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

Much has been written about the neophytes who, absent gainful employment, move back home to practice the ancient family tradition of eating. Bad idea. By now, parents have earned the right to love their offspring from a distance and, barring emergencies, children have earned the right to sweat it out.

The tougher question is whether they should get any financial support at all. My daughter, who lives in sublime squalor in Brooklyn one year out of college, reports that many of her friends still receive money from their parents.

She, in contrast, ekes out a living from three pleasant, dead-end jobs while performing with a variety of theater groups. Her parents cover her healthcare premiums but that's it.

The Observer is unmoved by parental largesse. Nobody wants to see offspring in homeless shelters, but the subsidies of well-meaning parents simply postpone the inevitable.

Barring a trust fund, you're on your own. (I've never bought the idea that a trust fund is a curse.) Welcome to the majors, where they throw high and inside.

I recently completed a field trip in Brooklyn to investigate my daughter's flotation. Her current slum is slightly better than her last one and it is fairly clean, with the exception of the refrigerator, which revealed what I pray was maple syrup that had spilled and congealed maybe seven months earlier. There was also vegetarian matter in there I wouldn't step in. All in all, she's grand.

Liberal arts types come with floater DNA. Their diplomas prepare them for everything and nothing.

My daughter's degree in theater from NYU, I've told her repeatedly, is her passport to poverty. She nods and beams. She runs with a great Brooklyn group of arts and design kids. They have no money, they're incredibly creative, and they're having a ball. So I declare victory.

For now. You still wonder when floating will no longer be OK, when getting food for free from the farmers' market, where your floater works for peanuts, will feel like failure.

Your nightmare is that your floater will still be floating at 34. Still living in a shabby rental. No health insurance. Ratty clothes. No simoleons to do any of the things that enrich life. It won't happen, but that's your fear.

Achievement matters. It can come in any form. Floating in pursuit of nothing, in contrast, is a dangerous game after a certain point. But parents should breathe deeply and remember that life is also about the pursuit of happiness, a chameleon of a thing.

So pay attention to your floaters because you can learn from them on this score. Revel in their joy. Some of it may rub off. This whole thing, it turns out, cuts both ways.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@gobe.com.

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