Fledglings Overcrowd Parents' Nest

ALICE STEINBACH

May 28, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

It's almost June and all across the land, college graduates are packing up their rented U-Hauls and heading home.

Excuse me, make that: moving home.

And all across the land, as these fledgling children flock back to the nest, you can hear the chorus of Moms turning to Dads, saying: "Honey, guess who's coming for dinner."

Pause. "And lunch."

Pause. "And breakfast."

Yes, just when you thought it was safe to order that white wall-to-wall carpet you'd been wanting and to buy orange juice by the quart instead of the gallon, they're back: The Boomerang Kids.

The Class of '92 is finding out -- just as the Class of '91 did -- that it's a tough world out there; that even with a $20,000 college degree in their pockets, jobs are fewer and pay less.

Some, of course, opt for grad school as a way of forestalling reality. But others become Boomerang Kids -- adult children who move back home, temporarily, for economic reasons.

Of course, it's not only college kids who move back home. A recent Census Bureau study reports that one in nine adults from ages 25 to 34 lives in a parent's home, an increase of 25 percent since 1960.

The empty nest, it seems, is turning into a rather crowded nest.

Which means less privacy, less independence and less room for parents and boomerangers. And more friction.

But even more troublesome than the obvious loss on both sides of privacy and independence when an adult child moves back home is another, less articulated, problem: the perception that such a move suggests failure. On both sides.

Failure as a child because you did not meet some imaginary timetable that takes one from dependent child to independent adult.

And failure as a parent because you did not produce an independent child.

Indeed, some parents resort to paying their adult child's rent just to avoid such a perception, giving rise to what New York magazine calls the "kept kids" phenomenon.

Others are reported to be taking an approach analogous to corporate downsizing: Parents who are "down-nesting" -- which is to say, moving to smaller residences to avoid their kids boomeranging back to the old homestead at age 25 or 30.

Which brings up the question: In a time when everyone is talking about bringing back "family values," why do so many of us consider a family composed, even temporarily, of parents and adult children as valueless? Or even worse, as a failure in the parent-child relationship?

Of course, it used to be fairly commonplace to have adult children live at home until they married. And it wasn't all that long ago.

As recently as 1960 many families consisted of parents and unmarried adult children. But between the years 1960 and 1990 the composition of living arrangements has changed dramatically: More people of all ages live alone.

Gone are the families that consisted not only of parents and adult children but often of aunts, uncles and grandparents as well.

And in their place? Well, the situation is similar to all those automobiles you see that contain only a solitary driver.

Just as people seem inclined not to car pool -- which can be inconvenient -- they seem less inclined to tolerate sharing their living space: Studies show that in the last 30 years the proportion of adults living alone tripled, from 4 percent to 12 percent of the population.

But when adult kids move back in with their parents, says an article in the Washington Monthly, their return is seen as "a serious violation of the natural way of life."

There is irony in this, the article points out, since "the side effects of the despised coming-home phenomenon might be the very ones we ought to covet in an era of fragmented families."

Thinking about all this reminded me of the experience of having two grown sons home for a month last year. At first, the house -- which, incidentally, is the same house they occupied as teen-agers -- suddenly seemed much too small. There were always doors slamming, music playing, phones ringing, people coming and going.

But gradually a tolerance developed among us for schedules that forced a certain amount of give-and-take.

Of course, by the time it was all working reasonably well my sons left.

But I suspect they'll be back. In fact I count on it. Although I must say I'd prefer them not to fall into the category of six people I recently read about. All over the age of 70, these six people are listed by the census takers as "children, living with a parent."

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