How Clinging to Mommy and Daddy is Ruining a Generation
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The Fiscal Times
February 8, 2012

As children grow up and venture out into the world, the transition from a bustling household to an empty one can be difficult – so, why not skip it all together? That’s what millions of families are doing, not just in the U.S., but across many developed countries. In Italy, the culture of “mammismo” or mamma’s boys, is widely accepted – today, 37 percent of men age thirty have never lived away from home. In Japan, “parasite singles” are chastised in the media for depending on mom and dad, but having few other options, they do it anyway.

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In the U.S. the proportion of people age 30 to 34 living with their parents has grown by 50 percent since the 1970s, and the recession has only made things worse. In 2010, over 5.5 million young adults moved back home with their parents, a 15 percent increase from 2007. The shift is so widespread, parenting guides for this stage of life are even starting to crop up, like the recent How to Raise Your Adult Children. Author Katherine S. Newman explores the effects of this growing phenomenon in The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition, and talks with The Fiscal Times about the troubling future consequences of this new family structure.

The Fiscal Times (TFT): When did you first notice there was a major shift happening with young adults?
Katherine S. Newman (KN): I traveled pretty widely in Europe from 2003 to 2004 and many parents I talked to still had children at home who were in their 30s. I was very surprised by this. They explained to me that so did all their neighbors, so there’s nothing unusual about it. And in Italy, they would say what’s wrong with this? Why would he ever leave me? I kept thinking, this is so strange, if this happened in my family I would think something had gone dreadfully wrong.  I realized that this is a growing phenomenon in especially southern Europe, the welfare states, and then I would get up to northern Europe, the Nordic countries, and there was no hint of this. Everyone’s kids were gone at 18 and if they were still home there was something very bizarre about that. I wanted to find out why this is happening and how widespread the phenomenon was.

TFT: So has something gone dreadfully wrong in these families?
KN: Well, something has gone wrong in the way entry-level workers are faring in the labor market.  You saw it beginning in the mid 80s when there was downsizing, outsourcing, and contingent work, and competition was heating up. Many countries responded by liberalizing their labor laws and new entrants into the labor market couldn’t protect themselves.  I think something has gone seriously wrong in the opportunity structure for young and now not-so-young people entering the labor market.  And families are now the private safety net. If you look at the Nordic countries which also have a very high youth unemployment problem, they don’t have accordion families. And that’s because they erected a whole series of policies that more or less ensure that young people don’t have these barriers. 

TFT: How is this changing the definition of adulthood?
KN: Adulthood used to be marked by very obvious and objective markers - the completion of education, marriage, an independent household, starting your own family, etc., but those elements have now been pushed off so far in the future that people are starting to develop a more subjective definition of adulthood.  It’s not about whether you have achieved those hurdles, it’s do you feel more responsible?  Do you imagine yourself as more autonomous?  Do you think you are different than you were when you were 18? There is a genuinely surprising relaxation of all of the metrics that used to signal adulthood. 

What I found interesting was that this change has taken place rapidly enough that in many American households and elsewhere in the world, you have two generations side by side with very different visions of adulthood.  You have the parents who believed some of these objective markers were the absolute definition of adulthood, but their children have a very different economic history.  And together they’re trying to negotiate a new definition. 

TFT: In the U.S., are parents happy about this shift? Or uncomfortable?
KN: It’s a mixed bag.  For many parents, they weren’t tired of their kids by the time they turned 18.  And when they went off to college, they were lonely for them. There was a certain joy in their return, and in part that’s because they’re not returning in the same form.  The parents no longer have heavy surveillance obligations, like is Johnny home by midnight?  Has Mary done her homework? They’re able to shed many of the things that produced tension in the teenage years.  It’s quite positive as long as it doesn’t appear to be permanent. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes children in the household aren’t making the progress their parents are looking for and it triggers those anxieties.  Or they forget they are entering a household that has established or new divisions of labor. Suddenly the kids are dropping their clothes on the floor and expecting somebody else to make dinner, and assuming the childlike role they had.

Blaire Briody is a contributing editor at The Fiscal Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Publishers Weekly, among others.