More 'boomerang' kids returning home after college

moving back home

When Rachel Cagan graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2010, she had already started her job search, but prospects were scant, and she took it as a foregone conclusion that she would move back home with her parents, at least for a while.

Cagan is one of a growing tribe of what demographers refer to as "boomerang kids," those young adults who return to the nest either upon finishing college or after a stint of independent living. Owing in part to a stingy economy that has confronted entry-level workers with a daunting job market, their ranks have swelled to record numbers.

"It's definitely tough," Cagan said. "I kind of assumed that I would always be home for a little bit."

For Cagan, a speech communications major, her stay with her parents in Raleigh, N.C., was brief. By September of last year, she had landed an internship at a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. That gig led to another internship at the PR firm Crosby Volmer, where she has managed to stay on after the program formally ended, receiving a monthly stipend that she supplements by waiting tables. So the search for full-time work continues.

Boomerang by the numbers

There are varying ways to quantify the boomerang phenomenon. One consulting firm recently estimated that 85 percent of new college graduates are returning home to live with their parents.

By official government figures, the number of young adults living at home is at a record high. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a larger portion of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 are living at home than at any time since at least 1960, the oldest year that census data is available. In 2010, 16.4 percent of men in that age range and 10.5 percent of women were living with one or both of their parents, according to the bureau's Current Population Survey, an annual sampling used to monitor key demographic indicators, such as the number of Americans living below the poverty line.

A 2010 analysis of census data conducted by the Pew Research Center highlighted the reemergence of the multi-generational U.S. household, reporting that in 2008, 16.1 percent of Americans were living in a home with at least two generations of adults, the highest level seen since World War II. Pew cited a variety of forces at work in the trend, including a later median marriage age, the recent spate of home foreclosures and the boomerang phenomenon.

A lackluster economy

Experts point to the dreary economy as the leading driver of graduating students returning home, though they cite numerous other contributing factors, including rising debt from student loans, high costs of housing and a generational shift that has done something to chip away at the stigma of young adults living with their parents.

"The Great Recession and subsequent weak recovery have hit young people particularly hard," said Rich Morin, a senior editor with the Pew Research Center. "Too many qualified people are chasing too few good jobs, and new graduates often are finding themselves competing for available positions with people who have deep experience."

However, Morin noted that new college graduates might stand to benefit from contracting payrolls that have led some employers to favor entry-level applicants ahead of more experienced candidates who would command higher salaries. But with so many mid-career workers currently seeking employment, that dynamic of the labor market might be mitigated by the ranks of experienced applicants willing to take a pay cut just to get back to work.

"The current job market is notable because it contains many previously employed people who have been out of work for extended periods of time," he said. "Nothing like the absence of a paycheck for a few months to force people to rethink how much an 'acceptable' salary is."

An entitled generation?

That hard reality presents a friction with what some experts see as a sense of entitlement among members of the so-called millennial generation. As they emerge from college, many of today's graduates carry the expectation that since they have put in their work at school and earned a degree, a good job, by rights, will be waiting for them. That can set them up for disappointment as they enter the labor force in search of a full-time, career-oriented position for the first time in their lives, according to Susan Terry, director of the Career Center at the University of Washington.

"The notion of 'getting a job, any job' is not an attractive prospect for a millennial," Terry said. "There is certainly frustration and yes, we often hear an expression from graduating college students along the lines of, 'I've worked hard for my college degree and I deserve a good job.' Good job in this case is often a very well-paying dream job. The idea of entitlement is a slippery slope, and those of us who been around for a while know for a fact that there are no guarantees. But many young people have been told by parents and others, throughout their young impressionable years, that they can do anything with their lives."

Debt burden

But the boomerang phenomenon is a product of more than just a tough job market. For some new graduates, even if they have found a full-time position, the cost of renting an apartment can be prohibitive at first. For others, student loans or other debts are a motivating factor for moving back home.

According to the Pew Research Center's recent report, "Is College Worth It?", the average student who borrowed money to finance a four-year college education today graduates with around $23,000 in debt.

The debt burden many students find themselves saddled with immediately upon graduation has led to mounting doubts over the value proposition of higher education. In the same Pew study, 75 percent of survey respondents said that college is no longer affordable for most Americans, while just 40 percent said that institutions do a "good" or "excellent" job in providing an education whose value offsets the cost of tuition and other expenses. However, Pew found that 86 percent of survey respondents said that college was a good investment for them, calculating that over the course of their careers, college graduates earn an average of $650,000 more than high school graduates

By Pew's figure on loan debt, Kristen Hart left school in a comparatively good position, graduating in 2006 from Smith College with a double major in history and German studies and around $10,000 in loan debt. Unlike Cagan, who graduated with no debt, Hart was determined to get a handle on her loan payments and land a job, describing her move back home with her parents in the Northridge section of Los Angeles as a necessary financial step.

"Until I found a real job I didn't want to go anywhere," Hart said. "I set a deadline for myself that I would live with my parents for a year. I thought that sounded reasonable," she added. "My year at home quickly turned into two years and then two-and-a half years."

But living rent-free for that time enabled her to pay offer her loan debt in two years, save enough money to buy a car, and, eventually, pay for her first year of graduate school at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she is on track to earn an M.B.A. next spring.

I loved that I was living at home and I was saving every penny," Hart said. "I felt like it was a great choice. I always tell people, if you can handle it, do it. The perks are great."

Hart noted that with her parents living in a cosmopolitan area like L.A. with ample job prospects, the choice to come home was comparatively easy. She described the situation of a college friend whose parents lived in rural Wisconsin. "There was no way she was moving back in with her parents." Instead, the young woman moved in with her sister in her apartment in New York City, where meeting her portion of the rent proved challenging with an entry-level salary.

Adjusting to a new dynamic in the household

Not everyone would agree with the arrangement that Hart came home to. Some experts warn parents to resist the impulse to let their adult children move back home without conditions, essentially resetting the clock to restore the living dynamic to the time before the child first moved away.

"I have seen parents fall into the 'trap' of allowing their adult children to live at home sans responsibilities or obligations," said Donald Freedheim, professor emeritus of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. "I think the children should have specific tasks, pay rent--even if borrowed from the parents--and live as guests in the home. Too much of a temptation to regress into the former patterns of parent-child relationships. Both parents and adult child have to go to a different level than when they were in college."

But is there a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex issues surrounding the boomerang generation? Natalie Caine, founder of the Empty Nest Support Services consultancy, said she advises parents that there is no "play book" for laying out rules for an adult child moving back home.

Caine described the return home as a "grieving process" for many children and parents alike, describing the letdown that members of both generations often feel when what they see as the natural progression--the transition from college to independent living--doesn't come to pass. She explained that among her clients who find themselves in that situation, the children are generally eager for independence and autonomy, while the parents often feel like their work was done once they wrote the last tuition check. Very often, both sides are embarrassed, particularly if the child's stay at home drags on. But does that mean the parents should start expecting rent payments right away?

"I would say have a little leeway there," Caine said. "Initially, why wound them that way? What's the value? Are you afraid that you won't be able to pull up that boundary in four weeks?"

Stressing that every child is different--describing the varying levels of motivation recent graduates exhibit in their job search as the difference between "sitters" and "standers"--Caine said she consistently counsels parents that "it's all about negotiating."

That could mean rent, it could mean the assignment of a few household chores, or, for the "sitters," it could mean working with the child to develop a measurable plan of action for landing a job, a quota of five phone calls a day, for instance.

"Know your child, know your finances, know your values. There is no set rule and they keep wanting a book that sets the rules," she advises, adding that for parents, often the challenge involves recasting their own role as a mentor to their child, rather than a manager. "The nagging and the arguments that set in are when parents fall back into their old roles like when the kids were in junior high. And the kids don't want to be seen like that anymore."

An evaporating stigma?

Caine and others call attention to the feelings of shame and embarrassment that adult children often feel when they have to move back in with their parents, particularly if that stay drags on longer than they had planned. But other experts point out that the cultural mores are evolving toward a growing acceptance of the boomerang pattern, particularly amid such a tough job market.

Data from the Census Bureau and other organizations lay plain the growing prevalence of young adults moving back home. Anecdotally, Cagan and Hart described their experiences as fairly typical among their friends. Hart, who spent two-and-a-half years at home, said her stint was longer than that of most of her friends, but that it was quite common among her peers to move back with their parents for at least a short period of time. Cagan said the same.

"As far as I can tell there doesn't seem to be much of a stigma," said Terry of the University of Washington. "I think this is tied in large part to this generation and their dependence on family support, both emotional and financial."

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