- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2011

The boomerangs may not be the blight they’ve been made out to be.

Researchers say they are seeing some social and economic benefits from the phenomenon of the “boomerang kids” — the steadily rising ranks of post-college Americans moving back into the empty nest with Mom and Dad.

A University of Minnesota study has found that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of boomerang kids are contending with temporary problems, such as job loss, and are far less likely to be on the road to lifelong slackerdom.

“I think there has been a lot of talk today about the decline of the family — that people are only looking out for themselves and don’t take care of one another,” said researcher Teresa Swartz, co-author of “Safety Nets and Scaffolds: Parental Support in the Transition to Adulthood.”

“I think that this study gives us some signs that families do look out for one another, especially during hard times and when people are trying to achieve something,” she said.

Brad E. Sachs, a psychologist and the author of “Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance,” said, “The transition to adulthood is a good deal more fragmented, a good deal more complex and a good deal more daunting than it’s ever been. … Sometimes you have to move backwards in order to move forwards.”

Even before the Great Recession of recent years, social researchers were observing — and trying to understand — the boomerang phenomenon, a reversal of trends in American living arrangements.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2009 found that 13 percent of parents with grown children had their grown son or daughter move back home with them in the previous year, while 11 percent of all adults 18 or older were living with their parents and 4 percent of all adults said they moved back because of economic reasons. More recent numbers are unavailable, but the soaring unemployment rate and poor job market for recent graduates strongly suggest that the trend has only accelerated.

Using U.S. census data, the Pew study also reported that the number of Americans living in “multigenerational households,” which had declined steadily from 32 million after World War II to 26 million in 1970, soared back up to a record 49 million in 2008.

Liz Kitchens, a professional consultant with the Kitchens Group, recently conducted an online survey for women ages 46 to 65 that included questions about adult children who were either living with their parents or were financially dependent on their parents.

The poll of nearly 600 women found that 52 percent had their adult children back in the house or were financially responsible for them. The survey also showed that 60 percent of the women surveyed were the emergency contacts on their adult children’s phones.

“My own kids left the nest, all eager and excited and enthusiastic, but bounced back when life out of the nest got a little difficult,” Ms. Kitchens said. “I was curious to see if other boomer women had had this same experience.”

While the boom in boomerang offspring generated considerable pop culture angst in recent years, some scholars and authors argue that the shift has a bright side.

Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education and co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, said the return to the nest is not so much a reflection on failure of the parents or laziness of the children, but rather the state of society.

“We live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult for someone to get out of college and place themselves in the kind of job that will provide a future for them,” Ms. Coontz said.

Mr. Sachs, the psychologist, said the transition to responsible adulthood is a lot harder for young people in today’s world.

“The social pundits are often equipped to point the finger at boomerang young adults and also at their parents,” he said. “The reality is that the amount and the extent of training and education that’s necessary for young adults to achieve financial self-reliance is a lot more demanding.”

Linda Perlman Gordon, a private psychotherapist in Maryland, said she had a son and daughter living at home at different times before they left for graduate school.

“It was delightful to live with my children as emerging adults,” said Ms. Gordon, co-author of “Mom, Can I Move Back in With You?” a book that offers practical advice and support for parents of boomerang kids.

She said these situations are viewed too often as unexpected and unwanted for families and can create wonderful experiences.

“I think that the fact that it’s surprising so many people tell you that we’re so used to this individual spirit, that we thought that after your kid left for college, they’re gone,” she said. “That feels uniquely American, whereas in other cultures, they expect you to be more interdependent on your child. Americans are so careful about their independence that they think it’s the only way to go.”

Not everyone is ready to celebrate the boomerangs.

William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, warned of delayed maturity that might arise from returning home to live with parents after college.

“The biggest thing is that they are postponing adulthood,” he said. “They are postponing adult responsibilities. It’s normal for their generation; they look around at their friends, and that’s what their friends are doing too.”

Mr. Doherty said it is important for parents and returning children to negotiate upfront and set a good time frame to discuss how the arrangement is working and whether it should continue.

“Let them know what you’re expecting of them as an adult member of the family,” he said.

Elina Furman Landauer, author of “Boomerang Nation,” added that it was important to set specific regulations for good communication between parents and children. She said it is essential to draft a household contract or agreement before moving in, so that neither party has unrealistic expectations of the other.

“Set a move-out deadline,” said Ms. Landauer, who moved in with her mother after college. “If you don’t have a sense of how long you’ll live at home, it can go on indefinitely.”