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.