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The Crowded Nest: The New Normal

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” –New York Tribune editorial, July 13, 1865

Substitute any major metro area for “Washington,” and that advice seemed to make sense for almost 150 years.  For generations, young people headed out from their hometowns to seek new opportunities. However that’s no longer the case. Apparently our 21st century adult children have no intention of moving to a new frontier to make their fortune; they are very comfortable living at home, thank you.

This lack of adventure among young Americans was dubbed “The Go Nowhere Generation” in a New York Times article earlier this month. The number of young adults who have moved to another state has dropped by more than 40 percent since the 1980s. (This seems hard to believe for those of us who work in New York City which appears entirely populated by an under-35 crowd.)  The article’s authors, Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz, lament:

Today’s generation is literally going nowhere. This is the Occupy movement we should really be worried about.

There are several reasons given for the lack of mobility. One expert cites an “economic reset,” where young people feel more secure staying connected to their home towns to live and work. Another expert blames Facebook. Supposedly the more time they spend online with their hundreds of “friends,” the less time millennials spend getting a driver’s license, something that would actually get them moving.

The authors also blame “risk aversion” caused by the recession, noting:

Children raised during recessions ultimately take fewer risks with their investments and their jobs.
Perhaps more worrisome, kids who grow up during tough economic times also tend to believe that luck plays a bigger role in their success, which breeds complacency.

Yet another reason for the lack of mobility of young adults can be (choose one depending on your view) blamed or credited on the widespread acceptance of the comfy nests that parents provide. According to a new Pew study with the upbeat title, “The Boomerang Generation: Feeling OK about Living with Mom and Dad”:

If there’s supposed to be a stigma attached to living with mom and dad through one’s late twenties or early thirties, today’s “boomerang generation” didn’t get that memo.

More than 75 percent of boomerang children reported that they are happy to be living at home. Almost a quarter found that their relationship with their parents improved, with another half saying living at home hasn’t changed the relationship.

And these adult children are not freeloaders, with almost half of boomerang children reporting that they have paid rent to their parents and almost 90 helping with household expenses.

So what does this all mean that adult children are choosing not to figuratively go “West,” and instead stay near their families? Several astute observations were made by Barbara Ray, an author who has written one book about the millennial generation and is at work on another.

In a blog post, Ms. Ray compares the new normalcy of boomerang kids to their European contemporaries.

I’ve been saying this for about a year now–that eventually we will get so used to this pattern that the stigma will fade and it will all become just, well, normal. In Europe, which is ahead of us in living home longer and intergenerationally, it started out as a worry as well. But with time and familiarity, it became the stuff of the Gallic shrug.

Ms. Ray believes the upside of this trend benefits not only adult children, giving them a safety net as they launch their lives, but also their parents, and eventually the grandchildren. Families living in proximity means that:

Kids can take care of their parents, and parents can take care of their grandkids in a seamless swap of support.

Of course, this remains to be seen. If the economy rebounds and jobs are to be found, will adult children head to warmer and less crowded climes for an improved standard of living? We can always turn the table then and follow them to their nice new nests! That might be the next trend. To be continued in a few years…

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