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Crowded house

Why, worldwide, young adults are flocking back to live with mum and dad.

In a modern take on the story of the Prodigal Son - better make that Prodigal Child - the parents wouldn't bat an eyelid when their progeny turned up on the doorstep having squandered the job, the flat, the partner and the loan. Sure, they would pull the fatted calf out of the freezer and make merry, wash the child's socks and kindly commiserate. But they wouldn't be surprised. The return of grown children to the family bosom has become commonplace. But each time they come back, the welcomes must become more and more perfunctory, as parents, all prepared for a bout of empty-nest syndrome, find instead that their chicks have become big, solid clodhoppers, but never properly leave. Who says you can never go back? -Everybody's doing it. There are even national derogatory names for the species: "boomerang children" or "boomerangs" in English-speaking countries are "parasite singles" (parasaito shinguru) in Japan, and mammoni or "mama's boys" in Italy. Figures from the US suggest that 18 million Americans aged 18-34 live with their parents - about one third of the age group. Of this lot, 4.5 million are over 25. UK statistics show the same pattern; two surveys, one wittily titled "You treat this house like a hotel", last year showed that the proportion of young adults who return home after initially leaving has nearly doubled since the late 1950s, from 25% to 46% - and also provided the shameful statistic that 10% of 35-44-year-olds still get mum to do their washing.

Maybe there's no place like home, but it used to be that people couldn't wait to get out. A scummy dive and a diet of beans was a small price to pay for freedom and independence, or so the myth goes. Now even a scummy dive is too expensive for some. The usual economic pressures are blamed for forcing people home again - a volatile job market and rising costs of housing and education.

Canterbury University psychologist Dr Mark Byrd says that women might be seeking safe harbour. "This tends to happen when they get married, have kids, get a divorce, and find they can't live on their own and their parents are there to provide shelter and a babysitting service." For men, he says, it's less socially acceptable. For a man, the return to cooked meals, a laundry service and maternal love is popularly called the Peter Pan syndrome.

By no means is this only a masculine trait. Other theories blame materialism and a lack of maturity among the pampered young. The ever-receding average marriage age might be the reason why all those Japanese parasite singles - mostly young women - and Italian mama's boys are sitting at home, but consumerism appears to compensate amply for their lack of a spouse. American consultants Social Technologies present this demographic as a seller's dream. "They have the option to treat nearly all of their earnings as disposable income. Their parents often cover many day-to-day expenses such as groceries, rent and even -transportation." Economists have credited the parasite singles, the buyers of Gucci bags and high-tech toys, with a luxury-spending boom that continues to defy Japan's recession.

In the family-based societies there is no stigma attached to such parasitism. But in Anglo countries where flatting is still seen as the norm, this behaviour is derided as "apron-string clinging". Spiked's Jennie Bristow diagnoses it as "independence aversion, and a startling reluctance to grow up". A gruesome caricature of the boomerang as perpetual adolescent can be seen on TV in Kath & Kim's Kim, all whining, sulks and interminable power struggles.

Boomerang Kids, by Mary Bold, PhD, purports to show how you can avoid having a Kim in the house. With all the wisdom and mangled metaphors of the University of North Texas' Centre for Parent Education, Bold insists on six conditions to "make a re-filled nest work well". Some of these seem straightforward, if not necessarily easy; others impossible to control. Check them off: boomerangers must pay rent or make some other contribution to the household; they need to get along with mum (apparently the father-child relationship is less important); they can only return once, temporarily; their return must be regarded as a safety net while they regroup; they must be cheerful and good company; and their parents should be in a long-term marriage - to each other. It seems that step-parents in the nest increase tension.

In real life, no one is that structured. Boomerangs told me that their families made it up as they went along, with mostly satisfactory results. But satisfactory for whom? The typical boomerang appears to score cooking, cleaning and laundry services. "Clothes never smell as good as when your mother washes them," observes Damian, a former domestic recidivist. "They have that sweet smell of servitude."

Quite. For example, Simon, a supremely capable, marathon-running, 30-year-old crown prosecutor, says his mother does everything. He is at home for six months while his apartment is refurbished, and: "It is like living in a hotel. There's no expectation that I have to contribute at all. I'd only been back a few minutes by the time she'd ironed my first shirt. I feel very guilty about it."

Paul, a 24-year-old transport planner, has no such qualms. He and his older brother share a room, and take to work sandwich lunches made by mum. Paul has no set chores. Nor does he pay rent. "Well, that's why I'm at home. I need to save up for a deposit on a house." His brother already has an investment property. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul's mum is keener to keep her son at home than he is to stay. Paul plans to move into the house he buys, although his mother thinks he should rent it out.

Daniel (24, marketing) is more ambivalent about the benefits of family life. He left home when he was 18, and lasted eight weeks before fleeing his student filthpacket to his mother and stepfather's tidy house in the "North Shore ghetto". He claims he is scarred by the experience but ready to try again. "We've outgrown each other, really," he says of his parents, citing unreasonable rules such as no noise in the kitchen after 10.00pm and no girlfriends staying the night. "They don't give me the independence I need." But two minutes later he changes his mind. "I think actually I could stay a bit longer. I can afford to go shopping."

Byrd is not impressed by scenarios like these, which he says lead to social retardation. "You have to agree that you're all adults living together," he says. "If the parents still treat the kid - I shouldn't say kid - young adult as a child, that's harmful for the development of the child and the parents as well."

For those concerned about their development, there is Richard Melheim's 101 Ways to Get Your Adult Children to Move Out (and Make Them Think It Was Their Idea). Or you could just be thankful you are not Giuseppe Andreoli, who last year was ordered by an Italian court to pay his 30-year-old son Marco, who lived with his mother, maintenance money. The judge maintained that Marco, who has a law degree, a trust fund and a habit of refusing jobs he considers inappropriate to his aspirations, was still the responsibility of his father.

Here, at least the welfare system lets parents off the hook when their darlings hit 25. But as Byrd says, "The age boundaries are not numbers - what is an adult? What's 21?" Outside, in public, people might be treated as adults, might be adults, but, "walk inside the door and all of a sudden you're 14. It's not so much about age boundaries as about feelings." Life circumstances have changed, he maintains, and the generational distinctions are blurred.

Dave and Wendy Hendl are in their sixties. Of their four children, the second-youngest, Mark, is 26 and still at home. "We thought we'd have an empty nest by now," says Dave. "It doesn't worry us at all." Mark went flatting for a bit, but came back for financial reasons, and Dave says things are occasionally "brittle" because "he's trying to mark out his own space". Although Byrd says that marital satisfaction tends to increase when you boot the last child out, Dave Hendl is in no hurry to discover the delights of childlessness. "It'll be an unusual situation, a new adventure. But we'll miss Mark when he goes."

Generously, he suggests that his children might take a while to get the trappings of adulthood, "but they're probably exposed to more of life earlier". And guess what? It's the parents' fault. "We're probably to blame for not foisting responsibility on to kids, making them more aware of the value of looking after themselves."

Most commentators are content to mock boomerangs as overgrown infants, but their decision to trade off penurious independence for higher purchasing power has a certain depressing rationality. Children of middle-class baby boomers know that the world owes them nothing - their parents' generation has seen to that. They expect to struggle for the milestones that former generations took for granted - a degree, a career path, a house, a pension. At the same time they want their parents' pleasures. They want job fulfilment, a social life, high-tech toys - and they want them now. So it makes sense to exact a sort of retribution by continuing to be a burden on the family. This contradiction between continued dependence and the desire for autonomy might seem adolescent. But perhaps that's the point. Boomerang kids' unwillingness to leave adolescence mirrors the baby boomers' increasingly frantic attempts to stay young.

Oh, well. We can't all be twentysomething together. Once the over-forties have taken on the trappings of yoof, rebellion will have to mean fogeydom. Boomerangs admitted that part of the appeal of home was that their peers weren't there. Damian: "You know what it's like to have a flatmate who listens to loud music late at night or who drinks 10 glasses of water a day and uses a new glass every time. And you find your parents' words coming out of your mouth: 'Can't you bloody rinse that thing?'"

Adams family values.

Can you see this catching on? In an unorthodox reversal of the boomerang thing, Anna Adams and her husband and Anna's parents have all moved into a house they bought together. Anna is a lawyer, her husband Jean a business and legal consultant - both jobs that take them away from one-year-old Lara. Enter Anna's parents, Ken and Diane, who help out with childcare and cooking. It's a tidy solution. As Anna says, "It facilitates our careers without sacrificing [Lara's] quality of care." How rational. How lawyer-like.

They have all been together for only four months, so it is still early days, but, Anna says, "we get on pretty well". They are careful not to share too much time and space. "It's a big house. They have their areas and we have ours." There is a payoff for her parents, too. Before they bought this house, Anna and Jean had spent five years overseas, so Diane and Ken are overjoyed to be able to get to know their granddaughter better. Anna has thought of long-term benefits as well. "If one of them dies, the other won't be living alone," she explains, adding quickly, "though they're not that old - they're in their fifties."

There have been, however, a few teething difficulties. "You have to work a few things out about privacy and space, and decision-making. There's a few little social issues to iron out." One of these is dinner. Anna says her parents would like all the adults to dine together. "We don't really want to do that. It would be a bit much for my husband, having to eat dinner with my parents every single night. Even for me." They compromise by having dinner alone a few times a week. "Sometimes that's a bit of a pain, because if one person cooks, it's usually one of my parents, and then we end up eating separately. It is a bit tricky, making it clear that it's about claiming some -private space, without giving people the impression you don't want to be with them."

Apart from that, Anna has it sussed. Bringing up a baby is never a breeze, but, as she points out, "with four people involved it definitely makes it more manageable". And what she loses in private space, she reckons she gains in time. But whether this solution spreads depends utterly on the family. At least boomerangs maintain that they won't stay forever. Anna is grateful for her parents' flexibility. "They've had to make compromises. They're not running their own household any more. My mother still wants to tell me what to do, but we've kind of worked that out. She tells me what to do and I don't necessarily do it."