An unexpected bounce back?

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Popular cultural images take a dim view of adults who continue to live at home with their parents beyond their 20s. From the slacker male living in the basement sitting in front of a video game to the classic spinster female, the stereotype is of a directionless, socially awkward, eccentric who should have moved beyond the nest and struck out on their own long before.

These images aren’t likely to change anytime soon in American culture, but what of the so-called “boomerang” children who after completing college or facing a major life crossroads return to live with a parent? As far back as a decade ago the U.S. Census was reporting that approximately 56% of men and 43% of women aged 18-24 lived with at least one parent. The number leaps up to approximately two-thirds of recent graduates.

To the generations of the earlier 20th century, circumstances meant that adult responsibilities were thrust upon (or actively taken up) upon the finishing of school (often meaning high school) or taking on a full-time job. The job would usually provide a means to live independently and the independence led to marriage and the raising of children. Full-time jobs of the first two-thirds of the century generally would provide the ability for one wage earner to afford at least basic housing, food, transportation, recreation, etc. for a family. While this picture obviously does not take into consideration all members of society, generally young men did leave their parents’ homes for good by at least their early 20s. Unmarried women may’ve stayed longer on average but after the inevitable wedding they too usually did not return to their parents.

Sounds pretty good eh? So…what happened? Changing social mores and practices favoring individualistic impulses have had the greatest effect on the situation we have today- if perhaps indirectly. Marriage rates have gone down. In some cases they’ve been supplanted by co-habiting which would’ve been nearly unthinkable earlier in the 20th century. At the same time that marriages have declined, those that have taken place are much more likely to end in divorce than the previous generations. As today’s teens and young adults witness and grow up in a less stable household, they in turn are less likely (for a variety of reasons) to folllow with establishing their own traditional family units. The life-expectancy of Americans having risen well-above that of their forebears also seems to place less urgency on taking on adult responsibilities until a later and later age.

Economics plays the largest role in the return (or never leaving) to the family nest. More than ever before, debt for student tuition saddles many college graduates with a financial burden that can be hard to lift. Even with sheepskin in hand, the diploma does not assure the recipient of a (well-paying) job. Combine these factors with a society that suffers from a lamentable lack of  personal financial savings and you have a growing class of folks who simply can’t make it on their own. Even when a 20 (or more)-something may move out the financial strain caused by such painful events as divorce, poor health, or loss of a job can mean moving back into one’s old bedroom.

The recent Great Recession has had an unexpected salutary effect on society in that hard times have made millions of people re-think their priorities. Having less discretionary income has meant a greater interest in self-sufficiency, cutting wasteful spending and “consumerism”, and an interest in more collective efforts with others to be able to pool resources together to work for common aspirations. Ironically, the failures of a “me-first” society may be planting the seeds in which shared (or multi-generational) households may return to the forefront. Even if these changes may be mostly taking place for largely economic reasons, the possibility that Americans may embrace a culture that values shared duties, responsibilities, and connected-ness may offer hope for a more caring- and less callous and self-absorbed one that we’d been developing.

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