Beyond the Great Recession

Tough economy refills empty nests

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2011 - 2:43 PM

Financial realities and changing cultural trends are rewriting the rules of separation for parents and young adults.

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Charlie Evans, 23, graduated from college last year but has been living at home with his parents, Rick and Kristen Evans, and a younger brother, Oliver, 18, while he looks for work. “It is what it is,” Charlie Evans said. “But it would be nice to have a place of my own.”

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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It's been almost a year since Charlie Evans graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in engineering, eager to launch a career in the aerospace industry. "I started applying right away," he said. But 200 job applications later, he's landed only two "solid" interviews.

"There are jobs out there," he said, "but so many other people are looking," including experienced engineers willing to take entry-level jobs.

Evans' summer job ended in October. So for now, he's living in a guest bedroom in his parents' Edina basement, his belongings in boxes. (His younger brother got his room when he went off to college.) "It is what it is," he said. "But it would be nice to have a place of my own."

For Evans and his peers, the road to independence is rockier than it used to be. Jobs are scarce, real incomes have fallen, and soaring college costs have produced a generation of grads already deep in debt.

"The days of coming out with a B.A. and getting a good job are pretty much over," said Brad Sachs, family psychologist and author of "Emptying the Nest." "Achieving independence is a longer, steeper, more daunting process."

How steep? The Economic Policy Institute recently declared an "unemployment crisis" for young workers. As of 2009, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were unemployed, the highest share in nearly four decades, according to the Pew Research Center. Among 22- to 29-year-olds, one in eight say that, because of the recession, they have boomeranged back to live with their parents.

The recession accelerated the parade of young adults back to the nest, but it started earlier and reflects broader cultural changes, according to experts.

"It's a longer trend than just the economy," said William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "We call it 'emerging adulthood.' It's a big cultural change. The 20s are now an extension of adolescence. You don't expect people to settle down and act like grown-ups."

Today's young people feel freer to leave jobs and move in and out of their parents' home than earlier generations did, he said, and parents are OK with that. "This generation of parents doesn't expect the same level of self-sufficiency. They're less likely to say, 'Get any job' ... more likely to say, 'Get a part-time job that fulfills your passion, and we'll make up the difference.'"

Living with the folks is more appealing to today's young adults than it was to their parents, according to Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. While young baby boomers clashed with their parents on many issues, today's young adults and their parents share similar views, she said. "The values gap now is technology, but it's more eye-rolling than downright fighting."

Today's young adults also value the amenities at Mom's and Dad's. While boomers placed a high value on independence and were willing to live like paupers, "Young adults today are more willing to sacrifice independence in exchange for material comforts," said Katherine Newman, dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book "The Accordion Family."

Doherty agreed. "This is a more entitled generation. They come home to live because there's nowhere else they could live better."

But boomerang living can create friction even in close-knit families, experts say. Young adults, used to living on their own, may chafe at parental demands. And parents who expected to finally be free can resent the continued toll of providing for adult children. "They harken back to their own leave-taking and wonder why their children's is not as crisp and clean," Sachs said.

For the Evans family, having Charlie back home has been enjoyable, according to his mother, Kristen. "We're getting along, and it's nice to have the extra help," she said. "It's fun to get to know your kids as adults." But still she hopes it's not a long-term situation. "It gets old. He is a grown-up. He's used to having his own space and not having to answer to anyone. This is not what anybody would choose. We would just like that golden space job to come dropping out of the sky."

The long view

Living with the folks into adulthood may seem like a new phenomenon. In fact, it's a very old one. "In the 19th century, it was common for kids to stay with their parents," Coontz said. But while earlier generations pooled their money and kept the same schedule, today's boomerang kids tend to live on their own terms.

"They're not tethered to the family. That's really new and different," Doherty said. "The big shift is this extended period where young adults have no major responsibility other than to themselves. There's a debate in the academic world whether this is a problem or not."

It's not, according to a new U of M study to be published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. "Monetary and housing assistance through the 20s is normal and healthy," the study concluded. Parents who help support young adult children are not delaying or stifling their development, but providing a "scaffolding" to help them work toward self-sufficiency, said study author Teresa Swartz.

Those lucky enough to have parents able to support their career incubation will have a long-term economic advantage over those forced to fend for themselves, experts say.

"It leads to inequality," Newman said. "The well-heeled can do this; the poor can't." Middle-class families, meanwhile, will be increasingly stretched. "The cost of piling up credentials is so high," she said. "Families are pouring more and more money into preparing young people at the cost of retirement for older generations."

Many students will need to continue their education and skill-building after graduation, said Paul Timmins, career services director for the U's College of Liberal Arts. "That's something college graduates didn't have to think about years ago."

Preston Dean is thinking about it. Since graduating from St. Olaf College almost two years ago, with a double major in biology and environmental studies, he's been unable to find full-time work in his field, so he's been living with his parents in Eagan. He volunteered for 10 months with the Conservation Corps and now has a part-time seasonal job that pays $8 an hour. He already owes thousands in student loans, but he's considering going back to school so he can qualify for internships. "Experience is the only thing that's going to get me a job."

His father, Mike, is resigned. "He may have to retrain," he said. "When I was young, I moved furniture. I could always depend on my body to make money. Now even that's gone away. I don't know how these kids are going to get independent."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

  • about this series

  • This occasional Star Tribune series focuses on how Minnesotans are adapting to a vastly changed economic landscape, even as the recession fades into the past.
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  • Beyond the Great Recession

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    This occasional Star Tribune series focuses on how Minnesotans are adapting to a vastly changed economic landscape, even as the recession fades into the past.

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