The era of empty nests may be over unless we change our work culture and our economy. An expert explains
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.
You point out that there are very few accordion families in the Nordic countries. Why?
In Sweden, if you’re still at home after the age of 18, something is really wrong with you. I asked people in Nordic countries why they thought that in places like Portugal and Spain young people stayed with their parents for a long, long time, and I was really intrigued by their answers. Their answers had nothing to do with differences of the welfare state, at all. They said things like, “Well, we think maybe they love their children more than we do,” and, “There’s more attachment and affection in their families.” This led to one of the most surprising parts of the research project that underlies this book.
I thought the Nordic countries would look like paradise. These are the places where the problems that produce the accordion family don’t exist because the state has stepped in and cured them. I was amazed to hear the Nordic interviews talk about people being lonely, feeling separated, like maybe they didn’t love each other enough. It made me realize that the flip side of economic dependence, or need, across generations is a degree of commitment and affection and engagement that really isn’t alive in the Nordic countries in the same way. To them the emotional side is very evident and it causes them to be self-critical about whether they’ve gone too far and made it too easy for families not to care for one another across generations because the state cares for you.
Are you advocating for any social reform in the US?
Investment in higher education has always paid off for the United States as it does in the social democracies. Increasingly success in the world economy depends upon skill, training, flexibility, and all of the attributes we refer to in using the phrase “human capital.” Sadly, the U.S has been moving away from investing state resources in higher education at precisely the time when some of our competitors are pushing hard to increase their human capital. If we do not provide access to college for worthy students whose families cannot afford to pay the high cost of higher education, we will be wasting our talent base. So yes, I do think that we should be moving in the opposite direction, as we did with one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the country’s history: the GI Bill.
How do these attitudes break down between ages?
I think what we’re going to see is that something that started out looking like an [age-specific] trend is going to engulf multiple generations. These labor market rules that introduced short-term and part-time jobs have affected one generation of young people when it began, basically in the mid ’80s. But 20 years later, it’s no longer just one generation [that is affected]. And if this keeps going – which I think it probably will – ultimately this will have engulfed the whole society because all the generations that come up from behind will be affected by the same labor laws. Right now, you’ve got two generations side by side with very different economic realities and very different definitions of a normal process of maturation: you’ve got the baby-boom generation [that] was able to be independent, and then you’ve got the generation coming behind them that inherited a completely different economic world. These two groups are now grappling for what is really normal. What should we be doing? Is it my reality or your reality that ought to count? But if you fast-forward another 20 years, when virtually everyone has been affected by this trend toward short-term employment and high housing costs, it’s going to become the new normal and there won’t be a contrast, and it won’t be age-graded because it’ll be everybody.
Some of the data you’ve collected on the accordion family phenomenon shows that there are more men staying with their parents than there are women doing so. Why do you think that is?
Women seem to be streaking ahead in educational attainment and occupational prestige. That may be one of the least recognized, but most important changes of our time. As they graduate high school and enroll in college at a higher frequency than men, women at the high end of the skill spectrum are starting to outstrip men in their earnings. This may well translate into earlier independence. Of course, in the past, women left home before men because they married at younger ages. Now, however, skill differences born of educational differences may mean men are less prepared than the women their age.
A number of college grads not having a really clear, defined career path are often returning home to “figure out what to do next.” Is this a privilege of class or reflective of a deeper social or cultural value?
Class has something to do with it, but there is something else going on. When I [used to] talk to my grandparents, they never thought that work was something that gave you meaning – it was just the way you put the roof over your head. But suddenly in the boomer generation, you have a very different way of thinking about work: It’s to be valuable, meaningful, honorable, enjoyable, a source of identity. That has now become a kind of standard for the way we think work should be. We have accepted the notion that our children ought to have jobs that are meaningful, not just a job that puts a roof over your head. It’s true that are all these powerful economic forces have set in motion the demand for the accordion family, but it isn’t all about necessity: it’s also about desire, values, what people find useful, what they’re proud of. And every one of these cultures has a different way of defining what kind of future is honorable.
How would you summarize parents’ and their adult children’s experiences living together?
There can be a lot of stress and a lot tension because the program isn’t working if the young people are not moving forward to a future [on which] everyone can agree. [There is], of course, a sacrifice of privacy. You do hear parents talk about how their golden empty nest years disappeared because the birds came back to the nest, or that they’re having to spend a lot of money that they would’ve otherwise saved for their own retirement to pay to take care of their kids for many years longer than they expected to. At the same – because nothing is ever simple – there can be a lot of joy in this.
So these parents who remember having to make sure Mary’s home at night, because it’s 12:30, are not thinking like that anymore now that Mary is 25. So they get their kids back in a different form than the way they had them when they were teenagers, and they’re introduced to the pleasure of getting to know your child again as an adult, [someone] with whom you might have a lot in common.
[Marriage has changed too.] I think we’re seeing a return, in some ways, to the way things were before the Second World War with the rising age of marriage and people staying home until they marry. The difference is they’re taking such a long time to get there – much longer than they did even before the war. In 1938 and thereabouts, you had people marrying in their mid-20s, and then it just plummeted. In the 1950s, the age of marriage in the U.S. for women was about 19 or 20. Now it’s gone way back up to 27 or 28.
What do you think future changes will look like?
I think the changes to come will have to do with what happens when this baby-boom generation is really elderly, because a lot of the resources they might have saved to care for themselves will have been spent on their children’s advanced education and on the preservation of the accordion family itself. And there are big changes that may be coming in 10 years or so, when we discover we can’t afford the nursing home solution such as it was for the earlier generation.
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