The empty nest isn't what it used to be -- starting with "empty."
Young adults are returning home in droves, with one in four 18- to 34-year-olds saying they have moved back in with parents after living independently, according to a Pew Research Center study released last month.
It's a sign of the economic times, but that's not all, according to Katherine Newman, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book, "The Accordion Family," examines this global phenomenon and how families feel about it.
Q Families have always doubled up in tough times. What's different this time?
A This is a relatively new experience for the middle and upper class. It's always been a problem in poor and working-class families, but the problems have moved up the class ladder. The upper class can still afford to subsidize rent for young adults. The middle class can afford college, but the kids tend to move back in because the parents can't afford the double rents.
Q How did you discover this trend?
A I've always been interested in the way economic trends affect people in a personal way. I was inspired by traveling in western Europe and Japan and talking to people about their lives. I saw a remarkable pattern of not-so-young people still living in the family home. I wondered why that was happening: Is this just a reflection of the poor economy, or are there other factors?
Q What did you conclude?
A This began long before the recession and will continue after the recession. It's harder and harder for young people to find their way into the professional market. There are increased requirements of higher education and increased expense, resulting in more young people with undergraduate loans. There's also the phenomenon of unpaid internships, working many hours for which you're not being paid at all.
Q You write that today's young adults are not willing to "slum it" to have independence.
A There was a period between 1967 and 1980 when there was a lot of cultural support for living in blue jeans with holes, in a slummy environment. A modest lifestyle and being autonomous were important. There was also a huge generation gap. But the millennial generation has the same education, the same tastes in music and film as their parents. The pain and stress is not as great. They compromise on freedom and privacy to live well.
Q How does the American "accordion family" compare with other cultures?
A The big difference is how cultures interpret this and whether it's a problem. In Italy, Spain and Japan, young people stay at home well into their 30s. They're not marrying, not having children, they go to college near where they grew up. In Japan, this is viewed as a moral crisis, that the next generation is defective. In Spain, it's blamed on the government. In Italy, there's not much stigma, not much finger-pointing.
Q How about the United States?
A We're in the middle. Our bedrock cultural principle is mobility. If we can't achieve it, if kids are not making tracks to a future we can be proud of, we get really anxious. If they're pursuing more education, an internship, searching for jobs, we're willing to give it a long run. But if they're playing video games, we're not.
Q What bugs adult children most about living with their parents?
A Living with parents compromises their autonomy -- their sex life. Adult children find it irritating and micromanaging, constantly being asked where they're going.
Q What bugs parents most?
A Parents are bugged if they think their kids are not making the right moves. They get annoyed if kids aren't pulling their weight with the dishes and laundry. There can be a lot of resentment smoldering.
Q Are there positive aspects?
A For some parents, things got a little lonely after the kids moved out. The nest fills up, and all the liveliness that comes with it, and the parents feel younger. You can't be old if you're not an empty-nester or a grandparent. It's like discovering the fountain of youth, in a sociological sense. What's not to like? The only thing not to like is if it's looking like it's not going to end. As long as there is a plan. If it reaches into the 30s, Americans are uncomfortable with it.
Q You write about "in-house adulthood" -- what's that?
A When a child returns at age 23 or 25, it's different than when that child was 17. They're a kind of adult, just not the kind we're used to. Adulthood used to be tied to getting married and having your own children. All the things we used to understand as adulthood have changed. This is some animal in between.
Q What advice do you have for accordion families?
A Parents should relax and forget about the stigma -- it's so common. The child will want a private life and some recognition of autonomy. But they also need to help out and not expect everything to be done for them. It's important to have a discussion about expectations, and respect the privacy of both parties.
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784