EDUCATION Boomerang back home
A growing percentage of graduates are coming back home after college.
By BETTIJANE LEVINE
LOS ANGELES TIMES
After at least five years of media-hype warning that a tectonic societal shift was slowly taking place, it has hit home. Millions of parents who used to worry vaguely about what they'd do when their kids fled the nest are now fretting about the opposite: how to get them to leave.
An estimated 18 million fledgling adults are out of college but not out on their own. Parental nests are packed with offspring whose costly college educations so far have not equipped them to assume the traditional markers of adulthood: moving out on their own, finding jobs good enough to support themselves and, down the line, establishing their own families.
Social scientists have blamed a variety of economic factors for this "boomerang" syndrome: a tight job market, low salaries for entry-level jobs, the high cost of rent and large student-loan debts, making it difficult for many to afford independent living soon after graduation. The trouble is, many parents would like independence from their kids. Many have retired or plan to retire, want to scale down or want to use what funds they have for their own selfish pleasures after years of putting their children first.
The situation has grown so pervasive not just in the United States (where 25 percent of Americans between 18 and 34 now live with parents, according to the 2000 U.S. census, the most recent available), but also in England and Canada, that marketers have begun targeting families who live with these boomerang kids, and social service groups have begun advising on how to handle the situation.
DaimlerChrysler autoworkers, for example, received advice on the subject in the April issue of their union magazine, Life, Work & amp; Family. The advice: Meet in neutral territory to discuss the kids' return before they come back home. Set up house rules, including a contract that deals with schedules and expectations.
A Florida newspaper columnist has asked in print (perhaps in jest) that the IRS offer a tax credit to parents whose grown kids have come home to mooch, er, live.
Author Gail Sheehy nailed this trend a decade ago in her book "New Passages," in which she realigned the life stages, adding whole new bonus decades based on changing societal norms and increasing longevity. Adolescence and partial dependence on family now linger until the late 20s, she wrote. True adulthood doesn't begin until 30.
In her new alignment, 40 is the new 30 and 50 is the start of a whole new life because by then many children have fled the nest, and their parents can begin to explore new options.
However, that last part hasn't exactly worked out the way Sheehy predicted for those whose grown kids have returned. AARP message boards are full of anguished complaints by parents facing heightened utility and food bills, depleted savings accounts and fears that their golden years are turning to dust.
The parent trap
Harriet Pollon of Malibu, Calif., has witnessed the transition from her vantage point as long-ago college grad, then mother and teacher. She graduated from Boston University in 1964 and, she says, nothing could have persuaded her to go home afterward. "It just wasn't done in those days." It signified failure.
"Our parents looked at college as a sort of upscale vocational training school. You went there to learn something useful ... I, too, believed that the purpose of college was to make my children employable. If you graduated and were still confused, you were expected to live with a group of other kids in the same situation. No one ever moved home. What an embarrassment that would be."
Pollon has four children, three of whom came home to live with her after their college graduations. One stayed for a year. "I thought, how convenient. He's an adult who drives, and I still had a daughter in elementary school, so he could help drive her. I also thought it was not unreasonable to ask him to occasionally baby-sit. He was shocked. It was out of the question, he said. It would interfere with his social life. He refused. And I was shocked."
The bigger problem, though, was the lack of privacy, she says. The house was big, with plenty of room to keep a distance from each other. Even so, "once your kids are out of the house, you establish a schedule for yourself -- eating, sleeping, etc. You have your own household rhythms. When the kids come home after college, they are not interested in your schedules. ... They see no problem with coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
"Parents are always aware of when a child is or is not in the house. You worry if they don't come home, and they're shocked that you worry."
She tried, but she simply couldn't tune them out, she says, because they are, after all, still her children. "It would be impossible to say no, you can't come home to live because it's inconvenient for me. You don't want to be a bad parent, so you get sort of trapped into it."
Where the heart is
Hilary McQuaide, 22, majored in political science at Yale and graduated in May. In April, she started sending out resumes to places in the San Francisco Bay area, near where she grew up. Her parents' home, in the suburb of Burlingame, was not her original choice of residence, but it quickly became clear, she says, that it was her best option: "It saves me a lot of money while I look for work."
If she gets a job soon, she says, she might still stay at her parents' home. "It's really well situated, it's really familiar and I have lots of things I missed while away at school. I missed having my cat sleep with me. And having our dog in the back yard. It feels really secure here. So many things change all at once after you graduate, so it's nice to have this one constant in your life."
McQuaide, an only child, says she was "kicked out of her childhood room" during her freshman year at college, when her parents converted it to a guestroom. Now she sleeps in what was once the attic -- a large space with its own bath. It suits her just fine.
"My old bedroom was right next to my parents' room in the back of the house. They'd hear me every time I walked down the hall, when the floorboards squeak. The attic is at the other end of the house; it's like my own private apartment."
Ideally, McQuaide says, she'd like to work for a few years and then go to law school at Stanford or Berkeley. "Now, I can save money for that." She pays no rent, she says, but she's expected to help around the house. "I do the dishes, feed the animals." She drives the car that was hers before she went to college.
The drawback, McQuaide says, is that "I've had to give up a certain measure of independence, which feels like a step backward. My parents would definitely want to know if I'm going to be out late, because if they go to bed and I'm not home, they're worried. And we'll eat dinner as a family sometimes before I go out whereas in college if I wasn't hungry I could eat when I got home." On the bright side, she says, she doesn't have to pay all the bills and keep her refrigerator stocked.