How Clinging to Mommy and Daddy is Ruining a Generation
Life + Money

How Clinging to Mommy and Daddy is Ruining a Generation

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

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.

This experience has also delayed a transition that the parents otherwise would’ve gone through – they would have become empty nesters and been looking for grandchildren, but they’re not going through either of those things.  And to the extent that we connect age and social roles, they’re not getting old.  It’s like a little fountain of youth.  They feel young compared to their parents who were done with this phase of life by the time they were 50.

TFT: What are the consequences of this?  In some ways, can parents be trapping their kids? 
KN: It can be worrying, and they do sometimes worry that they are making it too easy for their kids not to grow up and face the music. And the music is pretty harsh right now in the labor market. Parents do often wonder if they are making a mistake by cushioning that transition too long or too much. There’s no road map for this, and Americans are particularly bad at social situations that lack a road map. There is a certain amount of anxiety. Even when people find themselves enjoying this station of life, they wonder if they should be.

TFT: What about future consequences? If more jobs are in the cities, are people not getting job opportunities because they’re at home, or maybe they’re not meeting someone to marry because they’re home all the time?
KN: There are certainly consequences that may not have been thought out if people stay home for a longer time. If you marry when you’re a woman of 32 or 33, well you’re not going to have four children. Biologically that’s not going to happen. People are having smaller families. And they’re going to be older when their children are born and that has consequences as well.

In the U.S., we don’t have a serious fertility problem because we have a significant immigrant population, which tend to have larger families.  But if you subtracted the immigrants we wouldn’t look all that different from countries that are now suffering the consequences of very very low fertility, which usually means lower productivity. There are parts of this country where you can see very similar outcomes to what’s happening in Japan. There are a gazillion ways these demographic dynamics change the social landscape.

TFT: If this generation, who has lived with their parents and always had a support system, fall on hard times, how are they going to deal with it? How could this affect them psychologically?
KN: Psychologically it will be difficult and materially it will be difficult. Young people won’t get into the housing market because they can’t. They won’t accumulate equity like earlier generations did. They won’t have the resources to help their parents when they’re elderly. They’re going to be waiting for an inheritance which may not be there. The whole run-up to that accumulation that defined middle class life in the past will not happen, or won’t happen in the same way. My parents bought their first house when they were 23 and 25. I bought my first house when I was nearly 30. I don’t think my children will be in the homeownership market until they’re closer to mid-30s or older. In a system like ours where so much of a family’s wealth is tied up in housing, that affects the overall wealth profile and distribution across the country. And that matters for everything – retirement, helping the older generation, affording a college education – there’s virtually no aspect of American material life that’s left unaffected by this.

TFT: Has the stigma gone away in the U.S.?
KN: Not entirely. The lingering evidence in the stigma is in the sort of discomfort that people have.  But I do think that it’s starting to wear away and that’s because it’s such a widespread experience.  Today 85 percent of college graduates have either come home or have stayed home.

TFT: On the plus side, if these boomerang kids do become financially established, will they then return the favor and invite their parents to live out old age with them?
KN: I do. I think they will be in many ways closer to their parents than previous generations. And we are seeing a lot more elective family consolidation. People who are deciding that it’s financially prudent for the generations to live together – for the grandparents to help raise grandchildren, etc. A developer in California that has decided there’s a huge market in houses that have what he calls granny apartments  inside them. He’s marketing a whole form of real estate that hadn’t really existed before.