It’s a growing trend: More and more adults are living with their parents. According to the Census Bureau, the number of 25- to 34-year-old adults in the U.S. living at home rose from 14 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2011. The trend is present in other developed countries across the globe too: In Italy, 37 percent of men 30 years of age and older have never left home; in Japan, men living under their parents’ care are pushing their 40s. Such individuals are easily disparaged as lazy, overgrown babies, content to mooch off their aging parents rather than strike it out on their own. (Remember all those biting jokes Archie Bunker would throw to his “meathead” of a son-in-law.) But are they really?
In “The Accordion Family,” Katherine Newman, a sociologist and dean of the school of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, looks at the dynamics of the boomerang generation – a phenomenon she has dubbed the “accordion family.” Part economic analysis, part ethnography, Newman interviews hundreds of individuals in six different countries (in southern Europe, the Nordic states, Japan and the U.S.), to better understand the international dynamics at work. The major reasons driving adult children back to the nest are economic, she finds: Globalization and the recession are making it harder for new workers to enter the labor force, and the cost of housing is climbing. But other social and psychological factors are at play too. The result is a sometimes rocky, sometimes serendipitous experience for these families as they struggle to redefine adulthood and familial roles in the face of overwhelming global economic forces.
Salon spoke with Newman over the phone about the growing difficulty for young people to find work, how new the idea of being an independent young adult really is, and the surprising emotional benefits of the accordion family.
Is this current generation a bunch of lazy loafers? Your research doesn’t seem to indicate this.
No. They are a generation that has been caught by a series of unfortunate, overlapping trends that put them at a disadvantage for becoming independent the way their parents did. They’re entering a very unfriendly labor market that is particularly punishing to young workers. With the housing implosion in the United States, they’re still entering a housing system in which owner-occupied housing is very expensive. So, they have lower wages, if they have wages at all; they have high housing cost; and, in the advanced countries, there are ever more demanding credential races to qualify for professional employment. If they’re aspiring to be middle- or upper-middle class, the length of time it takes to pile up the education you need to qualify for the jobs to make that possible is getting longer and longer and more and more expensive. When you put all those things together, it’s not all that surprising that the accordion family has developed the way it has. It’s just a bunch of really bad circumstances that have coincided and affected this generation in ways that have not been the case before.
Money is (maybe obviously) a major reason for this trend. How so?
The recession we’re in has intensified a bunch of trends that were already gathering force, and already pushing people into accordion families. Those trends included a real downdraft in the capacity of young workers to find their way. That has really spread as downsizing has gathered force, as jobs have been outsourced. It’s become a much more competitive labor market, and an employer can be incredibly choosy. That leaves young workers at a disadvantage. And as much as they have a hard time qualifying for those jobs, the jobs themselves have increasingly become short-term, part-time or unpaid altogether. Now, to become a qualified professional, many middle-class American kids are going to have to spend many years in completely unpaid internships. So they finish college, or in the course of going to college, they spend years upon years working in jobs that used to pay money and don’t anymore because this market is so crowded. Well, if you’re going to spend years interning somewhere so that you get the kind of experience that will cause an employer to look at you seriously when there’s a paid position, how in the world are you going to manage if you have no income? You’ve got to live someplace. So, in households that can afford it, parents are making it possible for their kids to gather those credentials that will allow them someday – they hope – to launch at the level they’re expecting.
Is this phenomenon the same for lower classes or are there different reasons driving the accordion family trend in these rungs of society?
In poorer households, these accordion families have always been there. There’s nothing new there, because lower-income people have had to pool their incomes for generations, because to keep the household afloat you had to have everybody working and everybody contributing – and by the way, that was true for many middle-class households before the Second World War.
So this period of time which we come to see as normal – of young people leaving home; and spending time on their own before they marry; and their parents having an empty nest – that’s a phenomenon of the post-Second World War period of great affluence. It created a huge boom in wages, and burgeoning opportunities in the white-collar world. We’re not there anymore and we might not be again. We think of it as normal – and I think this is an important point – because the generations that experienced that “normal” are so huge. They dominate the social scene. They’re the baby-boom generation. That was their normal, but it wasn’t normal before them and it may not be after them.
So is this negative impression we have of boomerang children due to fickle memory?
What people think about, what they regard as normal, what they factor in as explanation for how they got where they are really differs from one country to another. In the United States, I came to find that people forget these huge investments that were made by the whole society in the form of, for example, the GI Bill, which really made a difference in the trajectory of those generations. It allowed them to become homeowners; it allowed them to get a college education – the first in their families ever to do so. They wouldn’t have been able to do either of those things if it were not for huge investments that we made, through government, in their well-being. Now, of course, this was seen as a tribute to soldiers – and it was, of course. But when you interview people [of that generation] and ask them, “How did you manage to become a homeowner?” they almost never mention the GI Bill. It’s not that they would deny it if you asked them, but if you just ask them, “Well, how did this happen?” the account is very much one of: “Well, I worked hard. I saved my money. I didn’t go out to eat. I had very modest tastes. The problem with the next generation is that they’re spending money freely and they have expectations that are too high, and they’re not as disciplined.” It’s all down to the personality of the generation rather than these huge economic structures that really do play a powerful role in determining where any individual or family ends up.
The same thing is true when you look at other countries. The Japanese, for example, tend to be very much like Americans: they think every person is the master of his own destiny. So if his destiny is not working out, then he really is to be despised. [These individuals] are the object of disdain. The Japanese tend to look at that next generation that’s living at home and say, “Well, they’re really lazy,” or, “They’ve lost their way,” or, “They don’t know how to be men like their fathers were,” and, “They’re a defective generation.” But you never hear the Spaniards say that because they have a different history and a different political culture, and they are looking for the ways in which government, or big business, or whatever, is to blame because they see themselves as recipients of those forces.
So these cultures, they subtract and they add pieces of their histories very differently, [even though] they’re all suffering from the same economic pressures.
Is there a place that you’ve studied where the self-perspective is healthier or more accurate?
When I started the project, I thought that Americans were sort of unrealistic in the way they thought about things, but when I started looking at these other countries, I decided maybe that wasn’t the case. That’s because now I can see the extremes on either side more easily. I can see how hysterical the Japanese are about [the accordion family trend]; and I can see how comfortable the Italians are with this, and how they don’t think it’s a problem.
So the United States turns out to be the moderate middle. There are some structural reasons why that is the case. We do have some housing that’s cheap – not homeownership, but we have dormitories on college campuses, we have rental housing that people can share with roommates. You’d think that that’s the way the whole world is organized, but it’s not true. In Spain, in Italy, there are no dormitories, there’s very little rental housing. In Japan there’s almost no rental housing. So, if you don’t have the money or the kind of job that you will need to have for a bank to lend you money for a mortgage, you’re not going to be able to move out because you’ve only got two options: You live at home or you buy a house.