Mom, Dad, I'm Home!

The dismal job market has forced many un- or under-employed twenty-somethings to move back in with their parents. And that may not be so bad. The secret upside to a down economy.

by Lindsy Van Gelder
Photograph: Photo by Phil Toledano.

And why shouldn’t it be? For most of history, families have stuck close together. Perhaps the problem isn’t that our children are staying—it’s that we’ve convinced ourselves that in a sane world, they will leave. “Many of our ideas about normative family practices only go back to the period of postwar prosperity that gave birth to the baby boomers,” says Katherine Newman, PhD, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Accordion Family, a book about adult children at home that will be published next year. In fact, the expectation that American adults would have a period of independence between childhood and marriage dates only from the late 1960s. For a change, the nation wasn’t facing a depression, a housing shortage or a world war; the number of people in college increased; and the age of marriage rose (after hitting a low in the ’50s and early ’60s). Parents who frame the current situation in terms of their offspring’s “failure to launch” need to understand that they, not their kids, are the anomalies.

They also need to be aware of how different it is to come of age now, says Craig Fabrikant, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey: “Because of postwar prosperity, our generation got to where we were going quickly and did phenomenally well.” But at the same time, people who grew up in the hippie-influenced late ’60s and ’70s had fewer material needs. “None of us drove fancy cars or needed technological stuff, and it was normal to live on Hamburger Helper,” he says. Today’s celebrity-saturated, designer-label generation has the opposite story line: high expectations regarding how and where to live, followed by dashed hopes of ever getting there. It’s the American Dream unreeled in reverse.

But attitudes vary wildly across cultures, according to Hopkins’s Newman. Her research looked at various countries, including Sweden and Denmark, where, thanks to welfare-state safety nets, most young adults are independent. In Italy, unmarried children have always been expected to live at home, regard­less of economic conditions. In Japan, parents of boomerangers tend to be even more upset than their American counterparts and “inclined to see things in terms of personal failure,” theirs or their children’s, says Newman.

U.S. families should perhaps take a leaf from the experience of recent immigrants, for whom family teamwork is still the norm, notes Margaret M. Chin, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and Graduate Center in New York. Chin studies Latino, black and Asian immigrant families, often at points of crisis (like the economic collapse in Manhattan’s Chinatown after 9/11). A strong sense that your family members will pitch in to help you is an antidote to an economy where “the company isn’t committed to you,” she says. Among her immigrant students, the experience of adult children living at home, while not without conflicts, is still typically part of a worldview in which, as she puts it, “the generations feel responsible for each other.” These young adults may have translated for their parents in important situations from an early age; now they could be staying close because their help is needed in the family business. “They might hesitate to move far away when they have families of their own,” Chin adds, “and they may eventually feel they can’t send their parents off to a nursing home.” Everyone benefits.

First Published February 14, 2011

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To kkl224@yahoo.com YOU ARE SPOT ON! I'm 42 yrs. old and remember the way it used to be. We are breeding generations of people who "feel" entitled! Guess what? ...Time to get back to realistic living and stop all the wasteful government spending!

Kate Leiner02.13.2011

Yes, there are many twenty-somethings out of work but how can you talk about how under-employed they are? Today's workplace moves at lightspeed and requires a significant committment of time, energy and experience to be successful. These kids are not under-employed because they have no experience. Graduating from college demonstrates the fact that you have a good memory and enough discipline to do the work but it doesn't qualify as experience. These kids are short on track record and expertise but long on entitlement and that is the problem. And the parents aren't offering a solution.
Most older adults have seen their 401K's decimated by recent events so why are they making regular handouts to their kids? Why are the kids taking them? I'm a single 46 year old professional woman who earns a comfortable living but I remember being an inexperienced twenty-something. I worked retail until I found a "real job" and lived in a $163 month studio apartment that barely qualified as decent. I didn't own a car because I couldn't afford one and when I did buy a car it was old, used and cheap to repair. The used cars got nicer over the years but I never bought a luxury car (and never will) and didn't buy my first brand new car until I paid cash for my Honda Accord three years ago.
These kids need to learn to live within their means and pay their dues in the workforce. If they can't afford a smart phone they shouldn't buy one. Same goes for cable. They can't waste time on Twitter and Facebook when they could spend that time doing an internship or helping out in a non-profit in their area of professional interest. Those activities would give these kids the type of marketable skills they need to find a job because once again, the books they read in college do NOT count as experience.
Also, twenty-somethings need to realize that there is something else at play here. No one can talk about it but in the back of every hiring manager's mind is age. People in their twenties are known for partying, dating, living free and doing as they please. It's great to be in your twentys but for an employer...younger people are riskier.
I'd pay a little more for someone older who is experienced, mature and settled rather than hire some young person who may call out when they're hungover or crawl in the morning after doing the walk of shame. I'll take the person who worries about their role as caretaker of their elderly parent over the person who will spend half the day trying to figure out why the guy of the moment didn't call. Is that fair? Probably not but it's realistic. Employers want productivity and proven performance and twenty somethings are simply too high risk.
These parents need to understand this and stop enabling their kids because in the long run they aren't helping them. American companies hired 1M people last year in this country while they sent 1.4M jobs overseas and our Government is doing nothing to stop it. The market will only become more competitive and these kids needs to develop their skillset, live on a tight budget and learn to roll with the punches because unless the Government steps up it is only going to get harder.

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