In the decade after the children of first wave baby boomers graduated from college, the percentage of young adults who live with a parent increased steadily. Although the majority gave the economy as the reason for living at home, a closer examination revealed that was only part of the story: Even before the current recession, when jobs for college graduates were easier to come by, many of those who were either employed or employable preferred the middle class luxuries of the parental abode to the decidedly less appealing lodgings they could afford somewhere else. Remembering how eager they were for independence, boomer parents are surprised by the return of their offspring. “We didn’t care where we lived, as long as it wasn’t at home,” said one, waxing nostalgic about the roach-ridden walk-up in Alphabet City she shared with four roommates after graduation. At first, she welcomed her children back: “We said, take enough time to find yourself before you get locked into some boring, unfulfilling job in order to pay the rent. We thought that meant a year or so. But after eight years, our son is still here.”

Her daughter returned to the family homestead after college too, although not for long: even in liberal, permissive households, young men who live with their parents enjoy more sexual freedom and social autonomy than their female counterparts. “We were probably more accepting of his lifestyle than hers; we never asked him to account for where he spent the night or complained when he brought a girl here, even if she was a stranger to us. With her it was different,” their father explained.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. In spite of the fact that their grown son lives under his parents’ roof, he feels independent: “He comes and goes when he wants to, and he earns his own spending money,” she said, admitting that both she and her husband are running out of patience with the situation: “We’d like to sell the house and retire, but as long as he’s living here, how can we?” Explaining that true independence requires financial self-sufficiency, I felt on solid professional ground counseling this couple to nag, nudge or even push their son out of the nest if they had to, for their own good as well as his.The recent financial meltdown has made me reconsider that advice. Now that even those adult children who’ve managed on their own since graduation are losing their jobs, apartments and automobiles, more roofs than ever are sheltering two generations of grown-ups. “Independent” doesn’t quite have the same resonance it used to, and “dependent” connotes an outdated parent-child dynamic, especially when parents’ own financial situation may be less secure than it once was: “Nobody wants their kids to have to support them, but I sure hope their expensive educations were a better investment than my 401K turned out to be,” said a recently laid-off executive.

As I learned when my 20-year grandson moved into my spare room a while ago, “Interdependence” is the new normal in the evolving relationship between parents and their adult children (or grandchildren). Jonathan’s military career had been cut short by a medical condition that developed shortly after he joined the Marines, and he didn’t want to return to his mother’s house, in a small Florida town with few opportunities for a young adult whose long-time dream had just collapsed. Seattle had more to offer in terms of jobs and educational opportunities, so I offered him a place to live, rent-free, while he pursued them.

He found a part-time job and enrolled in community college. It may have been because I woke him up when he overslept his classes, pestered him about his assignments, nagged him about his nutrition, and did all the things I counsel clients with adult children living at home against doing that after the first semester he went looking for a place of his own. But rents were too high – he’d need full-time employment, and since his desire for independence was stronger than his commitment to education, we revisited the terms of our agreement. Since he wasn’t re-enrolling in school, he’d pay me rent until he could afford to move – maybe that would mitigate my tendency to behave like a ‘parental unit,’ he said, planting a kiss on my cheek to soften his words.

It took more than $250 a month to break the habit – emergency surgery and a ten-day hospital stay. Neither my insurance nor my financial circumstances would cover the day and night care I needed for the next month – not skilled nursing, just someone to help me in and out of bed. clean, cook, shop, do the laundry, walk the dog, run errands, answer the phone and the e-mail, drive me to doctor appointments, and other tasks I couldn’t manage myself. He kept paying rent, although I tried to refuse it; he wouldn’t let me pay for his help either. “That’s what families do,” he said. “They lean on each other when they have to.”

Now that he has a full-time job he can afford a place of his own, but he’s not planning to move until I’ve recovered from the follow-up surgery scheduled for next month. Meanwhile, I’m treating him less like he’s my responsibility and more like he’s my friend. That’s interdependence – a mutual recognition that especially during challenging times, families help each other out, regardless of who needs the help. Real adulthood at any age resides in giving or taking it without sacrificing autonomy, dignity, and self respect – yours or theirs.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist