In the sweep of history, our most intimate relationships are often left in the dust. Who would have imagined, when the interstate highway system was created in the ’50s, that one of its legacies would be the diaspora of the extended family? When people whose families had lived in one place for generations could relocate easily, often they did. The feminist movement was another game changer. As women’s job opportunities (and expectations of help at home) began to grow, divorce rates started to skyrocket. And in yet another example of huge external forces affecting family life, the post-crash economy is now radically changing the relationship between parents and their adult children.
Start with the numbers: One in five 25- to 34-year-olds is living at home today, and an even larger proportion of that age group is not financially independent. A 2009 Purdue University study showed that 79 percent of young adults (mean age: 25.2) got money from their parents at least once a year; 48 percent received money every month. For parents who still own the big-enough houses their children grew up in, letting the kids move back often seems like a no-brainer.
Many of these young adults are unemployed, and in this economy they might spend dispiriting months squirreled up in their childhood rooms in their pajamas, sending hundreds of résumés into cyberspace without getting a nibble. Of those who do have jobs, many are underemployed. In a recent Charles Schwab online survey, only 28 percent of those living at home were jobless. Most of the rest were working but couldn’t afford to strike out on their own. College graduates in many fields are now asked to work for nothing, as a way to get a foot in the door—but often, when their time is up, they aren’t offered a job; they’re simply replaced by the next wave of cheap labor. Or they may be burdened with a level of college-loan debt that was unheard of in their parents’ day. The cost of tuition jumped 439 percent from 1982 to 2008, compared with a 147 percent increase in median family income; over the past decade, student borrowing has more than doubled. Even finding paid work doesn’t solve everything. Twenty-somethings are frequently overqualified for the entry-level jobs they snag—and still unable to earn anywhere near enough to be self-supporting.
Given the difficulties these young adults face, it’s not surprising that their parents step in and help. But for many families, a gesture born of love, kindness and obligation—where else are your kids going to go? Where else would you want them to go?—brings in its wake a complicated mix of emotions and practical concerns. And some effects are surprisingly positive. As one mother put it, “I pretty much know what my husband is going to say in any given situation. Having my son around has been terrific. It’s great to have another interesting adult at the dinner table.”
Most women never expected to share a home with their adult children—partly because when these mothers were young, they fought hard for their independence. “To us, moving back home was the last thing we would ever do,” says Elaine Mills, an illustrator from Stonington, Connecticut, whose 33-year-old daughter is living with her while she goes back to school. Many women now in this cohort got out of their own parents’ homes in part because it was the only way they could carry on a sex life; today it’s assumed that young unmarried adults aren’t celibate, no matter where they live. So if a mother is dealing with an adult child still at home, she’s probably also dealing with that kid’s significant other, which often causes strain. “I’m not crazy about my daughter’s boyfriend,” says one woman. “I don’t like the way he talks down to her when he’s here, and it’s hard for me to watch the way they interact. I’m trying to stay out of it, but it’s tough not to eavesdrop when you’re living in the same house.”