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Often called the “boomerang” generation or “failure to launch” kids, an estimated one-third of millennials globally now live with their parents. Photo/Getty

Why middle-class millennials aren’t leaving home

“She’s leaving home….” sang the Beatles plaintively in 1967. Back then she was probably about 18. Today she – or he – might be closer to 28 and not leaving home, or boomeranging back from study, travel or to save for a house. “Parental co-habitation” is now the most common living arrangement for adults aged 18 to 34. Sharon Stephenson looks at how it’s working out.

Midnight, mid-week, in an inner-city Wellington suburb notable for its “How much?” Victorian villas.

Amy Potter* was getting intimate with a Tinder date she’d met a few hours earlier when there was a knock on her bedroom door. It was her mother Siobhan*, 63, a retired public servant.

“I’ve kept your dinner warm,” Siobhan called through the locked door, as Amy and her date frantically got dressed. “It’s shepherd’s pie, your favourite. Should I bring it in?”

Backlit by bright spring sunshine, Potter, 31, laughs as she recounts the embarrassing encounter, one of a number since the business analyst moved back into her childhood home eight months ago. “Can you imagine having sex with someone you’ve just met while your mother hovers outside the door? Nothing kills the mood faster.”

I get the feeling Potter has told this story numerous times, squeezing it for maximum laughs. She’s about to tell another when Siobhan unexpectedly appears, carrying boiled water in various combinations.

“See what I mean?” she says after her mother leaves. “I know it’s her house and I don’t want to sound ungrateful – I’m truly thankful to my parents for helping me while I save for a house deposit – but I can’t be alone here. I’ve been living independently since I left home at 18 to go to university, but since moving back we’ve reverted to the traditional parent/child relationship. Yes, they’re my parents, but I’m an adult now and those old roles don’t work.”

It’s definitely not how Potter had imagined spending her 30s.

Living in the cushy comfort of your family home – where the fridge is always full and someone else pays the Netflix bill – would seem to be the epitome of a First World problem. Often called the “boomerang” generation or “failure to launch” kids, an estimated one-third of millennials globally now live with their parents. In fact, US figures show parental co-habitation is currently the most common accommodation arrangement for adults aged 18-34. According to the Pew Research Centre, it’s the first time that’s ever happened.

In the US, that equates to around 23 million millennials (35% of all males and 26% of all females in that age group) staying at home and, when they do leave, returning when they’re financially strapped or need a life reset if jobs and/or relationships haven’t worked out. Patterns in the UK follow a similar trend. Italy, which has long had a tradition of children forever tied to mama’s apron strings, has an estimated seven out of 10 adults aged 18-39 – bamboccioni or big babies – who still live with their parents (unsurprisingly, a proposed law in 2010 requiring Italian children to leave home once they turned 18 gained little traction).

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In New Zealand, despite the latest figures being from 2013, economist Shamubeel Eaqub thinks there’s every reason to believe we’re following the same trend. “Back in 2013, 24% of Kiwi families had adult children living with them,” he says. “We’d expect it to be around the 26-27% mark now, given the recession and the continued housing affordability crisis.”

A survey last month by Bauer Media’s Insights IQ of almost 450 parents showed 21% of respondents had one or more millennial children currently living at home, with another 12% saying one could return “any time”. (Our “millennials” were defined as those born between January 1980 and December 1996, now aged 23-39.)

Reasons include saving for a house or travel, lack of affordable rental accommodation, mental health issues and needing help with childcare. “Around two-thirds of parents were completely or mostly happy with the situation, citing positives such as the company, including getting to know their children as adults, as well as safety and security,” says Insights director Kate Terry.

“Others reported living with millennials kept them young at heart and up-to-date with technology, while sharing costs was another benefit, with around one-third of adult children paying an average of $128 rent per week and 35% contributing financially to the household by doing things such as buying groceries.” 

Falling into the “not so good” basket was a lack of privacy and personal space, the cost of food (“they eat a lot,” grumbled one parent), not helping around the house, bringing partners/friends home, and taking everything for granted. “A few parents mentioned they wanted to downsize their house and living costs, but were unable to because their children showed no interest in moving out,” says Terry. “They felt stuck.” 

Economist (and millennial) Shamubeel Eaqub. Photo/Ken Downie

Eaqub reckons he couldn’t do it. “Move back into my parents’ house? That’s not my idea of fun,” deadpans the 38-year-old Aucklander. But he admits that if he was starting out now – instead of being married, mortgaged and the father of two – he might well have to.

“The problem for millennials today is not so much paying the mortgage, which seems manageable, it’s getting together a deposit. When you need to save 20% of a $900,000 house [the average house price in Auckland] but the average household income is around $100,000, that’s a shitload of money to come up with. Plus, of course, you have to pay rent on top of that and keep up with ever-increasing house prices and rents, with incomes that have increased much more gradually.”

In 1979, for example, it took 4.5 years to save for a deposit. Ten years later, that had jumped to 6.3 years. Now, it’s a whopping 14 years.

Eaqub has seen the impact of this in his own quiet Hillsborough cul-de-sac where, of the 21 houses, five currently have, or have had, adult children returning home in order to save for a house. Most of his neighbours don’t charge their children rent, and may also stump up a lump sum for their child’s house deposit. “It seems to be necessary these days.”

The economic impact of such a societal change can, says Eaqub, be far reaching. “If millennials are trying to save more for a deposit and paying less by living at home, that results in fewer spending adults and less money going into the economy. It also means parents aren’t saving as much as they might have, so they could be in debt for much longer. This eats into their retirement savings, which could mean going into retirement with debt and not owning their own homes, which is a worry.”

Of course, not every parent is in a position to open their home and wallet to adult offspring. The director of Victoria University’s Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and Children, Dr Kate Prickett, points to international research that shows children from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to be living with their parents than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“In other words, those who can stand to benefit the most from staying at home are more likely to,” she says. “That reinforces the transmission of inequality where children from more advantaged backgrounds can use this time as a financial springboard or, at least, a time when they don’t go into debt. But less financially able parents may not be able to offer the same.”

*Names changed for privacy reasons

 Professor Paul Spoonley. Photo/David White/NZ Listener
It’s 6am in Gottingen, southern Germany, when North & South calls Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley. The Massey University sociologist is on sabbatical at a Max Planck Institute, where he’s writing a book about social and demographic change in New Zealand (including a chapter on intergenerational co-habitation).

As Spoonley wipes the sleep from his eyes, he says the “beanpole family” is one of the fastest-growing households in New Zealand. “This is a 21st-century version of the extended family, where there aren’t many children per family but intergenerational ties are strong, so you get older and younger adults living in the same household.”

What concerns him is how such set-ups can delay the transition to adulthood for millennials marooned on parental island. “Baby boomers tended to flee the family home in their late teens to work, study and eventually set up a familial household,” says Spoonley, who himself left home at 18. “But those milestones have been delayed because tertiary study means more adult children are still living at home and returning home once they start their careers due to increased student debt and living costs. Having such a prolonged transition between being a dependent child and an independent adult tends to push many of life’s key stages, including getting married, having children and buying houses, well into the 30s for these young New Zealanders.”

Millennials, adds Spoonley, are the first generation to experience the widespread privatisation of costs and the “new precariousness of life in a modern economy”, with less job stability, more discrepancy between wages and living costs, and less access to cheap housing than baby boomers had. “That means a significantly increased reliance on parents to meet the costs of adulthood, as well as delaying financial and social independence.”

Parents appreciate their live-in millennials’ help around the house (and tech skills). Photo/Getty
By now, Richard Ambrose*, 66, thought his four adult children would have started their own branches of the family tree. But while his three elder children are well on the way, youngest daughter Milly*, 25, is still living in the ground-floor flat of the rambling North Shore home Ambrose and his wife Margaret* bought 30 years ago.

“It tears at my heart that Milly is delaying adulthood,” says Ambrose gently. “I know how difficult it is for young people starting out now, but it’s time for Milly to be separate from Mum and Dad, to explore adult life with people who aren’t family.”

Milly’s story goes something like this: leaves home at 18 to study at Wellington’s Victoria University before returning in 2014. Gets a 30-hour-a-week job working for a charity and moves home because the living-wage income doesn’t support independent living in Auckland. “If it wasn’t for living rent-free with us, Milly wouldn’t be able to do the job she absolutely loves,” says Ambrose. “So in that case, we totally support her.”

It helps they don’t actually see their youngest daughter that much because when she’s home, she tends to stay downstairs. “Milly doesn’t often come up for meals – either buying in food or eating out. She also keeps her own space clean and does her own laundry. To be honest, Milly is really no inconvenience to us at all and in fact when we travel, which we do a bit now that I’m retired, she’s on hand to look after our mini-zoo of dogs, cats and frogs. We go away knowing our animals are being well cared for.”

Ambrose, though, can’t help but feel that Milly is missing out on the rites of passage he enjoyed. “When I was her age, you got out of home as early as possible. I left home at 19 but some of my mates escaped as young as 16. At one stage, I was living in a five-bedroom house in Rotorua where, over time, I had something like 25 flatmates. It taught me how to interact with diverse characters and learn tolerance of other people’s idiosyncrasies. Milly is missing out on all of that. She’s also single, and by living at home, she isn’t being exposed to meeting other people.”

Ambrose admits he often plays the “grumpy old man” card, jokingly asking Milly when she’s going to move out. “But seriously, I do want her to move onto the next stage of her life. There’s definitely an age at which it’s crazy for kids to still be at home...”

Psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald. Photo/Ken Downie
It wasn’t so long ago that basement-dwelling man-child types tended to be stigmatised as losers, stoners and dropouts. Not anymore, says Auckland psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald. “A tougher rental market means more and more millennials are moving back home, especially those trying to save for a deposit for a house. There’s a much higher level of societal acceptance of living with your parents, especially when people know it’s only for a certain period of time.”

Not only is this an obvious economic response but it also points to a culture shift, believes MacDonald. “It’s always been the Pākehā way to value independence, to move out of home and make your own way in the world. But this trend cuts across that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means we’re valuing culture and extended family more, along with the emotional and practical support they can provide, especially in terms of childcare.”

MacDonald, 44, is somewhat of a poster boy for the trend, having moved into his in-laws’ Auckland home for two years to save for a deposit. “I’m one of those who left home at 18 to go to university and never thought I’d go back. But my partner and I moved in with her parents when I was 27 because it allowed us to save money.”

It was, he says, an overwhelmingly positive experience. “Living with people has its niggles, no matter who you are and, let’s face it, most of us would rather live on our own. But for me it was a good opportunity to build a relationship with my in-laws. The key to bouncing back home is to have clear boundaries and keep the communication lines open.” (See Homefront Harmony further below.)

Nicky Cooper and Andy Fyfe at their hilltop Waiheke Island house with son James, 28 (at right). Until recently, he lived at home and worked at a nearby vineyard, but has now moved to Auckland. “We’ll miss seeing him and our day-to-day chats,” says Cooper.  “It’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to spend this time with James as an adult.” Photo/Ken Downie
The table at Nicky Cooper and Andy Fyfe’s hilltop Waiheke Island house is set for three. There’s chipotle lamb steaks and charred-corn salad, care of My Food Bag, as well as a bottle of merlot from the nearby vineyard where their son James, 28, works. In the background, Sinatra is crooning to no one.

Cooper, a former lawyer, and her husband of 31 years, a retired forestry consultant, bought their four-bedroom home, with its sweeping views of the Hauraki Gulf, in 2009. Having spent most of their married life overseas with Fyfe’s job – from Samoa and Sumatra to Hong Kong and Singapore – the couple always intended this to be their retirement bolt-hole.

What they didn’t intend was to share it with James and daughter Lizzy, 26. “We never expected our kids to be living at home at this age,” says Cooper. “I left my family home in Christchurch when I was 18 and Andy left his at 19, and neither of us ever returned. But it’s a different world now.”

James had been studying for his commercial pilot’s licence in Palmerston North for four years before deciding it wasn’t for him; he moved home shortly after his parents returned from Hong Kong. “James wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do, so a friend got him a job at a nearby winery.”

A year later, the couple moved back to Singapore for Fyfe’s work and James stayed on to house-sit. “He paid $90 a week board and covered all his own food and transport costs, while we paid the rates and bills.”

In 2017, they were back. Daughter Lizzy, who works in communications, also moved in for a year but now lives in Hong Kong. James has remained, paying $125 a week board, which covers not only his food but also petrol for his parents to drive him to and from his job.

“James can drive but isn’t interested in it, so either his father or I take him,” says Cooper. “It’s only 10 minutes away – nothing is far on Waiheke – and his father is at home most of the time [Cooper works part-time at Kiwibank], so he has the time to ferry him around.”

Besides, she adds, it’s a chance for the couple to make up for time spent overseas. “It was hard to be away from the kids while they were at university and long distances meant we weren’t on hand to assist on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, we’re quite happy to have the kids ‘boomerang’ back. We’ve had so much time apart, the time we spend together now is precious.”

Cooper doesn’t believe they’re prolonging James’ adolescence by letting him live at home, saying there are “clear expectations and boundaries”. “We run the house like adults and although sometimes it can be hard not to fall into the old parent/child routines where we tell James what to do, we’re confident he can stand on his own two feet, as he did when we lived in Singapore.”

The couple operated a policy of supporting their children financially when they were young (“We both graduated without student loans and wanted the same for them”), but as soon as they earned their own money, they were on their own.

“We recognise our privilege in being able to ensure our kids had the best start to their working lives, but now we need to look after our own financial security for our retirement. We don’t want to be a financial burden to them in our old age, so we’ve had to ensure our retirement plan is robust.”
(Shortly after our interview, Cooper emailed to say James was moving to Auckland to take up a new job at a winery. “We’ll miss seeing him and our day-to-day chats,” she wrote. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to spend this time with James as an adult.”)

Dan Brady pays board of $500 a month, which covers his rent, food and utilities. His mother, an office manager, does the bulk of the cooking, although everyone chips in at least once a week. “I’m not that keen on moving out.” Photo/Ken Downie
Some of the defining characteristics that have been attributed to millennials: they’re lazy, narcissistic, liberal and receptive to different ways of living.

Aucklander Dan Brady, 23, rolls his eyes at most of those descriptions, but nods enthusiastically at the last one. “I still live at home in Mt Albert with my parents and younger sister Savannah,” says Brady, who was born in Los Angeles to a Kiwi father and American mother. “In fact, I’ve never left home.”

We’re chatting during Brady’s lunch break at the North Shore company where he’s a buyer’s assistant. He’s worried about our interview running over, because he’s got a lot on his plate at the moment. That doesn’t include moving out of his parents’ home. “I look at flats on Trade Me now and again as I’ve talked about moving in with friends or my partner James, who I’ve been with for three years. But we’ve never really found the right place – there are some horrible flats out there and they’re so expensive. So no, I’m not that keen on moving out.”

And why would he when he’s got it so good at home? Brady pays $500 a month, which covers his rent, food and utilities. His mother, an office manager, does the bulk of the cooking, although everyone chips in at least once a week. “I get to live in a warm, dry house and have the security of knowing I won’t be kicked out at any moment. Plus, I don’t have to deal with dodgy landlords or flatmates.”

Living at home also allows Brady to squirrel away money in a savings account. “I’m not really keen on an OE and I’m not even thinking about buying a house at this stage, so it’s my rainy-day stash.” One that helps to fund his snowboarding habit; Brady admits he wouldn’t be able to follow the snow as much if he didn’t live at home.

He’s also thankful to his parents for respecting his privacy. “They don’t mind if James stays over.”

James is still living with his parents, too. There’s no shame in that these days, says Brady. “So many millennials don’t go flatting, because housing prices have increased disproportionately to wages. There’s definitely no stigma among my age group. But sometimes I feel there still is in the wider society – in some people’s eyes I’m still not an adult because I haven’t yet made that leap into independence.”

Having graduated with a BA from Auckland University in 2017, Brady is currently scoping out further study that will lead him to the kind of government/NGO roles he’s keen on. “If that happens, then there’s no way I’ll be moving out of home. My parents don’t charge me rent while I’m studying so it would be silly to go flatting.”

Marie Guerin: “I said to both the boys, this is a flatting situation and although I’m your mother, and will always be your mother, I’m not going to cook for you or do your laundry.” Photo/Nicola Edmonds
In the far reaches of Lower Hutt, behind a large wooden door, Marie Guerin is trying to wrangle Barney, an eight-month-old miniature schnauzer-poodle puppy, who’s confused my arrival with walkies time.

The nurse and owner of Accent on Skin, a Wellington cosmetic medicine/skincare clinic, apologises for the chaos, explaining that her youngest son Luke, 27, should have been home by now to take over puppy-sitting duties. Tired of the commute to his job in Upper Hutt, Luke, a builder, moved out of his shared Wellington flat 18 months ago and into his mother’s four-bedroom home. “The timing couldn’t have been better,” admits Guerin, who was facing a dilemma about whether to sell the house she bought with her friend Karen in 2014, shortly after the break-up of her marriage to the father of Luke and 29-year-old Jono. “By pooling our resources, Karen and I were able to buy a better house in a better area.” There followed a succession of flatmates who helped pay their mortgage.

But by the time Karen got engaged and moved out last year, Guerin – who bought out Karen’s share – had tired of living with strangers. “The problem was, the house was far too big for one person so I started looking to downsize, but quickly realised I didn’t want to leave – this house is in a great location and I really like it.”

The problem was solved by Luke moving in; shortly after, he was joined by his older brother for five months. “The last time I’d lived with my boys was when they were 20 and 21, so to have them back under my roof was fantastic. It was a pretty unique situation – I knew they’d soon be moving on and having their own families – so I enjoyed getting to know them as adults.”

There were rules, though. “I said to both the boys, this is a flatting situation and although I’m your mother, and will always be your mother, I’m not going to cook for you or do your laundry.”

Because Luke is saving for a house with his partner, Guerin charges him $200 a week for general expenses. Besides, she believes she gets so much more in return, with Luke doing maintenance around the house and looking after Barney when Guerin travels for work a couple of times a month. “As a woman living on my own, it’s good to have Luke here. One night, a drunk couple was fighting outside my door and it made me feel so much better knowing he was around.”

It also helps that her house is big, with Luke having the run of the upstairs and Guerin mainly living downstairs. “He’s pretty tidy and mainly does his own thing. But it’s also nice to have the company now and again.”

Guerin says she’s probably more receptive to boomerang kids, having been one herself. “I left home at 21 but returned to my parents’ Christchurch home twice, once when I got engaged to my former husband and needed to save money and again when Jono was a baby and our flat was sold from under us. We moved in with my parents for six months and it worked well, so this isn’t unusual for me.”

Homefront harmony

How to make things work with stay-at-home adult kids

Psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald has some advice for parents negotiating life under the same roof as their adult children:

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Have the conversation, no matter how awkward, about everything from money to who gets custody of the remote control.
  • Set boundaries. Your kids get the benefits of living in the family home but in return have to contribute in some way, be it in rent or cooking dinner once a week. And they have to live by the house rules.
  • Respect each other’s privacy.
  • Don’t let resentments build up. There might be times when you want to scream at them, but talk it through before the situation gets too annoying.
  • Exploit their skills. Make the most of their talents, from IT to helping you find the best phone plan.
  • Be open to new experiences. Watch what they’re watching on TV – you might just like it.
  • Prevent financial dependence from becoming a habit. It’s true that allowing your kids to live at home might be less financially onerous than paying their rent or student loan debt. But consider your level of support. The key is to foster independence, not create a child who’ll hoover up your retirement savings.
  • Be clear about time frames. The end-goal is for children to eventually move out, so be clear about when you expect them to do so.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.