The Boomerang Kids
Twentysomethings are staying with their parents longer than ever before. One explains his failure to launch.
Illustration by Marcos Chin
I trudged up the stairs, a load of button-down shirts on hangers slung over my arm. On the landing below, I’d stacked half a dozen boxes of books, which had followed me everywhere I’d moved the last few years. At the top sat the family dog, tongue poking from her mouth. I reached the top of the stairs and turned left, into my old bedroom, directly above my parents’ room.
I tossed my shirts on the bed, looked around, and said, “What the hell am I doing here?”
I was 29 years old—and I’d just moved back in with Mom and Dad.
I can give you all the justifications and excuses. Actually, I will: I had just finished graduate school, putting myself more than $50,000 in debt while earning an M.F.A. in creative writing, an advanced degree that came with some prestige and afforded me the time to write a novel, but offered little promise of a lucrative career. I’d been sharing a place in San Francisco with two guys my age, paying $870 a month for the smallest of three bedrooms in a flat in Bernal Heights—a neighborhood I liked, but hardly one of the city’s most glamorous. And I had temporary employment doing editing work at Diablo, whose office is perched on a hill less than two miles from my parents’ Walnut Creek home. Moving home seemed like the practical thing to do. But I felt so bad doing it.
Part of my guilt about moving home was rooted in the fact that it wasn’t the first time. I’d moved back in with my folks for a year after finishing college and then a second time a couple years later, after a stint in Portland, Oregon, ended unhappily. I’d bounced between a few jobs—bookstore clerk, waiter, S.A.T. prep teacher—and worked unpaid internships, not knowing what sort of career I wanted to pursue beyond the notion that I wanted to be a writer. (“A tough way to rub two pennies together,” a friend’s accountant father once observed.)
Even when I got a full-time, career-oriented job as an editorial assistant at Diablo, moving out would have meant burning a chunk of my entry-level salary on rent. Friends offered me rooms in shared houses, but I decided to stay home and save money—even if it made me feel like a loser.
Two years later, at 27, I left Diablo to enroll in the M.F.A. program at Mills College, and I moved out again—first to the Grand Lake neighborhood in Oakland, then to the city. I swore I was done with Walnut Creek. The third time would definitely not be the charm. But when I finished school, Diablo had an opening, and I was about to get kicked out of the apartment in the city I couldn’t afford anyway. So I headed home again.
Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t the only one taking my talents back to Mom and Dad’s house. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 13 percent of parents with grown children had seen one of their adult offspring move home within the previous year. The proliferation of what have become known as “boomerang kids” has produced a variety of responses in both academic and pop culture. Movies, such as the Matthew McConaughey vehicle Failure to Launch, and TV shows, such as William Shatner’s $#*! My Dad Says, have used the trend as fodder. Last August, a New York Times Magazine feature pointed out that people in their twenties now are consistently pushing back five key milestones of achieving adulthood: completing college, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child.
I was a perfect five for five: finishing a degree at age 29, living at home, only employed part-time, single, and childless.
So why is my generation prone to arrested development? Theories abound. There is the cultural explanation: We get married and have kids later in life thanks to many factors, including easy access to birth control and the continuing increase in the number of women pursuing both higher education and a career. We need more education to enter a more competitive, high-tech workforce. We’re spoiled, lazy, and entitled, and need to get the hell off Facebook and Twitter and get a job. (The cultural and economic impact of social media is a loaded issue best explored by someone else, since I’d rather cut my thumbs off than sign up for a Twitter account.) The New York Times story quoted several psychologists and sociologists who believe that our brains continue to develop much later than previously thought—into our twenties and perhaps beyond—and that our society is now allowing young people to fully develop their identities. Some researchers argue that this period, from the late teens to the late twenties, represents an entirely different developmental stage: emerging adulthood.
There is also a multifaceted economic explanation: The 2009 Pew study found that 10 percent of all adults between 18 and 34 had moved back in with their parents because of the recession. A staggeringly low 46.1 percent of people between 16 and 24 were employed at the time of the study, the lowest number ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A crucial reason for the economic struggles of young people today is that we take on much more student loan debt than in the past. This is not a by-product of the recession. It’s a fundamental change in our economic reality. A few striking numbers, courtesy of Forbes: The cost of higher education has increased 440 percent in the last 25 years; over the past 14 years, the average amount owed by a graduating college student doubled to more than $23,000, a figure that skyrockets for those who pursue graduate degrees.
“It’s most important to underscore the amount of debt we’re saddling our college students with, and how that is going to affect the economy” says Kerry Inserra, a college counselor from Lafayette. “It’s important to get a degree, but at what cost? We’re seeing a lot of college graduates unable to find employment, who are deep in debt, having spent thousands of dollars for a degree with no clear job prospects in sight. This is a most unfortunate situation that needs to be remedied.”
The increased burden of student loan debt is not the only economic shift that has occurred. As the Atlantic pointed out in a response to the New York Times story, from 1995 to 2005, the number of self-employed independent contractors, such as freelance writer/editor Justin Goldman, increased by 27 percent. These jobs are great for people with artistic inclinations or people who are exploring different careers, but they lack the stability of a steady paycheck and health insurance. How do you budget for your rent, other bills, and loan repayments when you don’t know how much you’ll be making month to month?
Speaking of rent, another part of the problem is the cost of housing. Even after the market crash, rents and mortgages are much steeper today than they were for young baby boomers. This is especially true in the Bay Area. Forbes lists San Francisco–Oakland and San Jose–Santa Clara as the two most expensive metro areas for renters in the nation. Estimates of the median home value in Walnut Creek vary depending on the source but are uniformly above $500,000.
What is the explanation, then? A new cultural permissiveness or a dreadful economy that puts a greater burden of debt on young people?
“It’s probably both,” says Lawrence Diller, M.D., a behavioral/developmental pediatrician who has worked with Walnut Creek families for more than 30 years. “It’s so interesting how we keep on extending nonindependence. ‘Teenagedom’ only became a concept a little more than 100 years ago in this country. You were either a child or you worked. The norm [for putting off independence] seems to be extending. It’s a reflection of the economy, and it’s a reflection of nurturance, or overnurturance, from the parents.”
When I look at why I boomeranged, I’d agree with Diller: It was a combination of cultural and economic factors. I didn’t have anybody telling me to hurry up and get married and have kids, and I was wary of committing to a full-time career because I wanted to devote as much time and energy as I could to writing fiction—choices that may have been tougher to sell to a less understanding generation of parents. On the other hand, I owed a lot of money because I pursued an advanced degree, I was working on a freelance basis, and I faced the major obstacle of having to pay Bay Area rents. On the whole, I’d say I was more willing to move home because the culture allowed it, but I had to move home because financial considerations demanded it.
When I talked to other boomerang kids and their families, their experiences echoed my own. Take the case of Diane Barbera and her family. Barbera has four daughters, ages 30, 28, 25, and 21. Three (the youngest is still in college) moved back home after receiving their B.A.s. The older two moved in with friends and then returned home—much as I did.
“I always had offered that for the first year after college, they could come home and live rent free,” Barbera says. “I was very surprised, and in one case shocked, when they came back [a second time] and said, ‘Can I move home and save money?’ ”
I asked Barbera’s oldest daughter, Beth, why she moved home after graduating from UC Santa Barbara (in the same class as me, coincidentally): “Very simply, I had no money. I moved back after undergrad and lived at home, rent free, for about one year. I was working two jobs, and when I saved enough money, I moved out. I rented an apartment for about a year and a half, then moved to Oregon for grad school.”
After finishing graduate school, she got a job as an emergency room physician assistant and moved in with her parents again to save money for buying a house. She ended up staying longer after she met her fiancé. “At the one year mark, I had enough money to become involved in real estate,” she says. “However, I met my fiancé and decided that renting from my mom for a little longer would allow more money for a down payment on a house. I moved out just short of the two-year mark of living at home.” By this time, she and her fiancé were able to buy a house in Pleasant Hill.
What happens to the young adults graduating college now, who are entering a changing job market still bogged down by the worst recession since the Great Depression? A lot of scraping, according to Holly Barbera, Diane’s 25-year-old daughter. Holly graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last June, with a major in architecture and a double minor in construction management and art. She began hunting for work at architectural firms, with little luck. “I’ve had a few interviews,” she says. “But they say, ‘We’d like to bring you on, but we don’t have the resources.’ It’s frustrating because you want so bad to start practicing in a practical setting.”
As Holly discovered, many companies offer recent grads unpaid internships instead of jobs, making it impossible for a young person to afford rent and offering no guarantee of employment at the end of the term. I remember this problem well. I was an intern at Diablo for six months—making a small stipend and working two other part-time jobs—before I had the good fortune to be hired full-time.
It’s even tougher for Holly. The collapse of the housing market has left few openings in residential architecture or construction. She looked at graduate school yet wasn’t ready to commit to tuition costs of $45,000 a year. Six months after graduation, she was able to find parttime work managing social media for a local company.
The difficulty in finding work and the demand for further education are two major reasons Diane Barbera was so open to allowing her children to move back in.
“When I was younger, I could get a great job without a college education and work my way through the ranks,” says Barbera, who works in business development at a community bank in Lafayette and did go back to college to get her B.A. “Now, people look for more expertise in your field, more college education. [Recent graduates] wouldn’t be able to get a job that would support health insurance—a necessity.”
Peggy White’s family had a similar experience. Her two daughters, Heather Harris, 33, and Lauren Lux, 30, moved home within a year of graduating from UC Berkeley, putting the whole family under the same roof again. A smaller roof, at that, because White and her husband had sold their Lafayette home and moved into a townhouse in Walnut Creek.
Of the two daughters, Lux had the more typical boomerang experience: She moved to New York after getting her degree in theater, but chewed through her funds and ended up coming home six months later. “I went through my quarter-life crisis,” she says. “I did theater growing up, so I kind of had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to keep doing theater full-time or if I wanted to do something else.”
Harris lived in San Francisco and worked in an investment bank after finishing college. She was laid off after 9/11, but money wasn’t a huge issue, as her fiancé played for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. After the wedding, she moved to Ohio with him but decided to come home again after she got pregnant. “I didn’t want to have my son in Cincinnati,” she says. “I wanted to have him in California with my family around.”
She and her husband came back to the Bay Area to have the baby but then moved to Michigan when her husband signed with the Detroit Lions. When the season ended, they lived with her parents again while looking for a house of their own, during the peak of the Bay Area real estate boom. It took around four months for them to find something.
“My experience [of living at home] comes from figuring out what I was doing with my life,” Lux says. “Heather’s was just because her life was so crazy.”
To be fair, life could get pretty crazy for everyone involved.
“It looked like a parking lot outside,” White recalls. “Every meal was like Thanksgiving. Our oldest grandson slept in a walk-in closet because it was the only place that was quiet.”
Diane Barbera noted a similar experience with cramped quarters. “I think I’ve lost some of my personal space. Even though this is supposedly my house, the only thing that’s mine is my bedroom. The garage is packed with water skis and soccer balls. Their rooms are all their own.”
Cohabitation always has its challenges—especially for young adults who feel like they should be independent yet find themselves anything but. Chris McLean, a psychologist and the manager of career programs at UC Berkeley’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center, hears concerns about loss of autonomy from students. “The college years are often thought of as a time of separation and individuation from the family,” he says. “For those students, [moving home] wasn’t the plan. It’s important for them to feel some sort of autonomy, and not feel like this is a disappointment.”
McLean recommends that families work hard to communicate, create ground rules, figure out how much kids will contribute to expenses, and set time frames for how long kids will stay. The families I spoke with tended to communicate effectively. Parents understood they couldn’t treat their children like teenagers with a curfew anymore, and young adults recognized that they needed to respect that they were living in their parents’ houses.
“You have to refine the rules that applied when they were growing up,” Barbera says. She didn’t give her kids a curfew, but she set rules against drinking and driving, and having overnight guests of the opposite sex. This last point can be problematic for young adults in relationships. I know I was checking Craigslist every day for a place my then girlfriend (also living at home) and I could afford. No matter how well you get along with your parents, it can be tough to arrange a romantic evening when you know Mom or Dad might show up at any moment.
Still, for the most part, it sounded like these arrangements worked.
“It was a nice way to give myself time to figure things out without financial stress,” says Lux. “I say do it, as long as you have a healthy relationship with your parents.”
“We like hanging out with our kids,” says White. “There wasn’t as much of a push to get them out the door. It was a great time in our lives.”
It’s good that these arrangements seem to be working because the boomerang trend doesn’t appear to be going away. There are indications that we may be seeing a broad shift in the structure of the American family. Another Pew Research Center study found that in 2008, 16 percent of the total U.S. population (or 49 million people) lived in multigenerational homes, compared to just 12 percent in 1980. Immigration plays a factor—higher numbers of Hispanic and Asian families live in such households—but the study found that rates have increased across racial and ethnic lines, particularly in the last few years. From 2007 to 2008 alone, the number of Americans living in multigenerational households increased by 2.6 million. Today, Americans between 25 and 34 live with other generations at the same rate that people older than 65 do—20 percent.
For thoughts on this, I turned to my mom, Tina, who, in addition to being the mother of two boomerang kids, is the director of nursing at ManorCare retirement facility in Walnut Creek. “I see the whole society going back to multigenerational living, whereas for years and years, it moved the other way,” she says.
And is this a good thing? “I would be very happy to have you live at home for the rest of your life. And take care of me when I get old,” she tells me, with a laugh.
No matter how much I love Mom, I’m not sure I’m sold on long-term multigenerational living. For those parents who are looking to eventually regain some space, there is hope: Beth Barbera moved out when she and her fiancé made enough money to buy their Pleasant Hill house. So did Heather Harris, who bought a house in Walnut Creek and then one in Troy, Michigan. Her husband now plays for the Detroit Lions; they have four kids. In her two and a half years at home, Lauren Lux got her teaching credential and met her husband, with whom she now lives in Sherman Oaks. She’s a teacher.
So, moms and dads, it may take us a little longer these days, but eventually we do make the leap from the nest. Even I, king of the boomerang kids, am out on my own. In September, I moved to Brooklyn, where I put the finishing touches on the novel I wrote in grad school. I’m now in the process of trying to sell the book, still chasing the dream of being a writer. In the meantime, I’m supporting myself with various freelance gigs, which I’m able to do largely because I found an extremely cheap apartment.
Where in New York City did I find an affordable place to live, you ask? That’s easy: my uncle’s basement.
Expert Tips for Parents
This boomerang thing isn’t just hard for the kids: It can be tough on parents, too. So, we asked Christine Carter, a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, for a few tips on how to keep both you and your newly nested kids happy and positive.
-Take care of yourself first: Just because your child is back doesn’t mean that your well-being no longer comes first. Remember, emotions are highly contagious. If your happiness slips, others’ may, too. So, get your sleep and exercise, and do what it takes for you to be happy first.
-Practice gratitude: Feeling a little down about the situation? Angry that your boomeranger is acting entitled? The solution is gratitude—both for you and for the kids. Consciously count your blessings at dinnertime (or anytime you are together). It will lift your spirits and help you feel more supportive.
-Be a historian of previous successes: Chances are, your son or daughter isn’t feeling so great about his or her lack of independence right now. It won’t help to say vague things like, “You’re so smart, you’ll find a great job,” or “You have so much going for you.” Instead, remind your boomeranger of the specific ways that he or she has been successful in the past. This will build confidence and a growth mind-set.
-Enjoy the extra company: Our well-being is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our ties to friends and family. Take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen your connection with your adult child.