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Boomerang Kids: Causes and Consequences

What does  Alberto, 30, an electrician from Bra, Italy,  have in common with Akiro, 28, a restaurant worker from Tokyo, and John, 25, an arts foundation staffer from Newton,Mass? They all live at the “Inn of Mom and Dad.”   However, the cultural acceptance of their lifestyle varies. Alberto’s “mammiso” living arrangement is considered normal in a country where 37 percent of men age thirty have never left home.  At the other end of the spectrum, young Japanese adults like Akiro have been dubbed “parasite singles.”  In the U. S., where the 85 percent of college graduates boomerang home, the reaction varies depending on a game plan, or lack thereof!

A well-written new book examines the cultural and economic causes and consequences of  adult children living at home.  “The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition” was written by Katherine S. Newman, a highly regarded sociologist and the dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. The title refers to how the family contracts and expands to accommodate children at different stages in their lives.

Dr. Newman dissects how economic conditions have given rise to a worldwide trend, spurred by the rising cost of tuition, housing and diminishing job opportunities. The book is deeply researched, with 300 interviews, conducted in six countries, intertwined throughout, making it an extremely readable blend of personal narratives with studies and statistics.

The book has a global scope, with Dr. Newman pointing out the differences between countries where there are strong public safety nets and others where there aren’t. The Nordic nations, long known for their support of working parents, also provide low-cost tuition and housing for “emerging adults”  so those countries have extremely small numbers living at home.  The southern European nations, such as Spain beset  by economic woes,  offer no safety net, and in the case of  Italy,  a cultural attitude of “Why would you want to leave home?” prevails. American parents, Dr. Newman found, are ambivalent, willing to fund a private safety net as long as their young adults regard the family home as a career launch pad rather than a crash pad.

Of course, there both negative and positive aspects to the trend.  Some of the long-term consequences are economic, both for children, their parents and national economies as Dr. Newman explained in a Fiscal Times interview. 

If you marry when you’re a woman of 32 or 33, well you’re not going to have four children. Biologically that’s not going to happen. People are having smaller families. And they’re going to be older when their children are born and that has consequences as well….

Psychologically it will be difficult and materially it will be difficult. Young people won’t get into the housing market because they can’t. They won’t accumulate equity like earlier generations did. They won’t have the resources to help their parents when they’re elderly. They’re going to be waiting for an inheritance which may not be there. The whole run-up to that accumulation that defined middle class life in the past will not happen, or won’t happen in the same way. …In a system like ours where so much of a family’s wealth is tied up in housing, that affects the overall wealth profile and distribution across the country. And that matters for everything – retirement, helping the older generation, affording a college education – there’s virtually no aspect of American material life that’s left unaffected by this.

On the bright side, she credits boomerang children for giving parents “a little fountain of youth.”  Unlike the World War 2 generation, Baby Boomers in their 50s, 60s and beyond are still hands-on parenting and delaying the so-called “golden years,” and that makes them feel younger and more vital. In Time magazine article, “The Surprising Benefits of Boomerang Kids,”  she wrote:

Parents actually enjoyed having their kids come home. Most of these parents worked throughout their children’s early years, and they weren’t so ready to kick them out of the house when they turned 18. The nature of their relationship had changed as well. Adult children come back new and improved form — no longer in need of homework supervision, curfews or any other conflict-filled form of surveillance — so parents get the best of the social role and jettison the parts no one enjoyed. Although their numbers might wax and wane over time, boomerang kids are here for the long haul. And that’s not such a bad thing.

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