As you’ve no doubt heard, thousands of young — and not-so-young — people are returning to the Inn of Mom and Dad to wait out the Great Recession. A whopping 85% of college graduates now circle back to the bedrooms they lived in during high school. In 2000, 2 million adult children lived with their parents. By 2009, that number had grown to 3.4 million. This trend has been portrayed as a calamitous development, a symbol of the downward spiral of not just of our youth but also of our country as a whole, or at least a thorn in the sides of annoyed parents everywhere. But very little of that analysis is true.
To begin with, Americans are hardly alone in contending with this disruption of the pathway to adulthood. All over the developed world, it has become increasingly difficult for the next generation to become independent — 66% of young men in Portugal are bunking with their parents as are 45% of their Greek counterparts. In Japan, as of 2003, about 12 million unmarried people between the ages of 20 and 34 were living with their parents.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. Delayed departure from the family home emerged in the 1980s, decades before the Great Recession, as global competition bore down on labor costs. Governments and employers responded by downsizing and outsourcing, while loosening labor-market regulations to permit part-time, short-term jobs. Young people — newcomers to the world of work — bore the brunt of this evolution. Meanwhile, housing costs were rising throughout the U.S., Europe and Japan. Those part-time jobs could not provide the wherewithal to qualify for a mortgage, and rents were less and less affordable.
Good jobs increasingly became off limits to anyone without a master’s degree or experience born of unpaid internships. It costs money — a lot of money — to afford these investments in human capital, especially if they come on top of huge debts to cover undergraduate degrees. Something had to give in this equation, and it turned out to be residential independence.
But this is not necessarily a problem. Far from coddling their kids, parents are opening up their homes and creating multigenerational “accordion families” as a way of investing in the human capital of next generation. They are making it affordable for their kids to work for no pay as interns or study for that next degree without adding to their astronomical college debts. But they continue to hold the millennial generation to a social contract: the situation is temporary, it must be part of a glide path to an independent future.
The adaptation is made easier because, in my research interviewing 300 people in accordion families, parents actually enjoyed having their kids come home. Most of these parents worked throughout their children’s early years, and they weren’t so ready to kick them out of the house when they turned 18. The nature of their relationship had changed as well. Adult children come back new and improved form — no longer in need of homework supervision, curfews or any other conflict-filled form of surveillance — so parents get the best of the social role and jettison the parts no one enjoyed. Although their numbers might wax and wane over time, boomerang kids are here for the long haul. And that’s not such a bad thing.