According to the real numbers reported recently by a more reliable source, the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s not the class of 2012 parents should be worried about, it’s their older siblings; last year nearly 30 of 25-34 year-olds – about 5.9 million adults – co-resided with their parents, a 26% increase from 2007. And while the economy certainly has something to do with it, it’s not by any means the only reason.
The number of young adults between 18 and 25 who boomeranged home or never left nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, long before the current recession, accepted and even welcomed by baby boom parents who enabled their extended adolescence and underwrote their search for identity for five to ten years longer than their own parents did. And most of today’s graduates consider the family homestead more of a short-stay hotel than a long-term plan or default position; although they’ll be back and forth between jobs, travel, grad school, roommates or romances for a few years, by the time they’re 25, they expect to have moved on, out, and up. Many will, but if the Census Bureau projections are accurate, others will linger a lot longer than that, and even the most tolerant and loving parents are beginning to wonder what that bodes for their own future as well as their kids’.
Having adult children as long-term roommates is emblematic of how the baby boomers are redefining the family life cycle, changing the traditional meaning of independence, and ushering in a new life stage located somewhere between middle and old age – Permanent Parenthood. And while this may be the most visible aspect of the dramatically different relationship they have with their grown kids than they had with their own parents, it’s hardly the only one, and it has less to do with money than multiple other factors.
I first heard harbingers of this when I began interviewing baby boomersin the mid-nineties for the first of three books on parents and their adult children. “I want to be kind of parent whose adult kids would want me in their life even if we weren’t related” is what many said: “I want an honest, open, authentic relationship with my grown kids,” said others, contrasting it with the more distant and less satisfying ones they had with their own parents, especially those they said “didn’t care if I was happy as long as I could support myself.”
There’s little if any research on this new family configuration – in fact, the relationship between parents and emerging adults has barely been studied, as Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, a leading researcher on young adulthood, points out. But its beginnings can be traced back to the 80’s, when parenting was “professionalized” by those whose careers, already impacted by the glass ceiling, had become less compelling as the management of their now child-centered families became more so. Says writer Ann Huilbert, “the summons to recognize parenthood–motherhood and fatherhood-as a high-status profession had never been issued with more urgency.”
Technology has enabled parents to stay tethered even to their grown kids in ways that previous generations couldn’t have imagined; most baby boomers, eager for independence, spent their young adulthood largely out of sight and reach of their own parents. A recent commercial for a wireless carrier promoting a family plan has a 20-something moving out on her own reassuring her anxious mother that they’ll never be out of touch. The high rate of divorce, which peaked in the mid-eighties when more than a third of American children lived in a single-parent home, contributed to narrowing the generation gap, breaking down many of the boundaries between the generations. “We were much closer than most mothers and daughters, because we were all we had,” said one woman, echoing many of her peers. “In a way, we grew up together.” Even a cursory look at many of the web sites devoted to women over 40 indicates that many mothers both married and single consider their adult children to be their best friends. And the youth-centered zeitgeist encourages further boundary burring; from music to fashion to cultural touchstones, the generations are closer together than ever; to feel part of their adult kids’ lives, say many parents, keeps them young, too. As writer Katherine Newman, author of The Accordion Family, puts it, the upside of delayed launching is that they don’t lose the role of an active parent. “In that sense they are sociologically younger than past generations; they retain the pleasures of being a parent and lose the downside. The relationship becomes more egalitarian and less vertical.”
In many cultures and ethnicities, living at home until and even after marriage is normative. But in this country, the empty nest has traditionally marked the end of the family life cycle, defined by sociologists as the time when children depart for independent lives and families of their own. And it’s worth noting that independence has a different meaning for today’s young adults than it did for their parents – it’s more about making their own choices than it is about making their own way or even their own living. The never-empty or re-filled nest may mark the beginning of a new stage in the evolution of the family cycle. But in middle class America, whose graying “post-parents” couldn’t wait to leave home, there’s a growing concern about whether their kids ever will.