Erasing the stigma of living with your parents

December 07, 2003|By Nathan Bierma

CHICAGO - For all that college students have to learn, one of the most important lessons is patience.

As recently as the last decade, tossing the mortarboard was anticipated as the moment of freedom from family and the start of an autonomous life. But a sagging job market for graduates - and some longer-term trends, such as swelling tuition costs and a rising marriage age - are postponing such a declaration of independence.

In the last Census, more than half of men and over one-third of women ages 18 to 24 lived with one or both of their parents, the highest rate in decades. And although the National Association of Colleges and Employers expects a modest increase this year in the hiring of college graduates, graduation remains less than an automatic green light to adulthood. A recent survey by the University of Chicago found that a majority of Americans now believes adulthood begins at age 26.

So as this year's seniors begin their job search, what you might call the George Costanza stigma for "boomerang" graduates will have to go. In a classic Seinfeld episode, George approaches an attractive woman and says sheepishly, "My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents." (In that episode, everything was backward, so George got the date.) It was a defining moment for a loser character in a prosperous decade full of winners. Now, though, it seems an unfair analogy.

When I graduated from college a couple of years ago, I was eager to pack up and move out of town, determined to avoid George's fate. Nothing against my parents, with whom I had a relatively tranquil relationship, but I was eager to make the leap. (As I've had only part-time jobs since then and rely on the support of my wife, I represent a rare validation of President Bush's belief that marriage can keep people out of poverty.) Most of my friends moved in with roommates or headed out on their own, and I pitied people who weren't as deliberate about their post-graduation plans.

But now I don't blink when I meet someone my age who lives with his or her parents. In fact, you might even call them financially prudent. I talked to one such graduate who said that while it was weird that none of her friends lived at home, they were jealous of her situation. She was the one paying off her loans and buying a new outfit. Her brothers were off to college, so she knew she'd have some peace and quiet.

Not that this prolonged transition is easy on any parties involved. Another graduate living at home told me that negotiating with her parents was one of the hardest adjustments. "Now you're an adult under another adult's roof," she said. Before college, her parents would nag her about grades and she would lobby for a later curfew. Now they were onto weightier topics such as loans and job offers.

These conflicts and tensions in the lives of "boomerang" graduates go mostly unexamined by the news media, sit-coms and movies, so our perceptions of them may lag behind reality.

It's hard to believe that reality shows, having sampled various permutations of domestic arrangements, haven't turned their cameras toward this phenomenon. Without condoning cases of outright laziness, we should acknowledge the latest demographic and economic shifts and know that those who appear to be young George Costanzas may actually be the overachievers of yesterday. And tomorrow.

Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books & Culture magazine.

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