Adult Children Moving Back Home: The Boomerang Generation and the New Normal

September 23, 2013

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Posted in: Podcasts, You & Your Family, Young Adults

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Relationships

Intro music written and performed by Dr. Gene Beresin.
Outro music performed by Dr. Gene Beresin.

In the past when children went off to college or left home, parents needed to adjust to living as “empty nesters.”  The expectation was that this was the way life would continue.  But in a major economic and social shift, a significant number of these parents must adapt to the fact that adult children are returning home without a job and means of income—they have no other place to go.

In 1980, 1 in 10 post-graduates moved back home; now, 4 in 10 move back after graduation.  A recent survey of college seniors found that 85% expect to move back home after graduation.

For some parents, this move is initially welcome.  Many miss their kids, and long to resume the closeness they previously had.  For others, perhaps the majority, it’s a real burden on a lifestyle they developed when their adult kids were out on their own.  In either case, parents now need to make a big adjustment.  And, so do their kids, who had finally left home and relished in their independence and autonomy.  Often for these children and their parents, moving back home for an extended period of time can be seen as a setback.

How can families learn to handle the unexpected emotional, financial and practical challenges of this “new normal” shift?

Case Example:

At first when Bobby planned to move home after college until he found a job and could support himself, the entire family was thrilled to be able to spend time together again.  It was assumed that since Bobby had been a hard-working, successful student, landing a “good job” would happen once he put in some effort.  Three years later, Bobby still lives at home, and his situation seems far from ideal.  His parents, who initially loved the idea of being able to help their son during his brief transitional time, now have mixed feeling about his extended stay.  After all, they have their own retirement concerns, and they need to save more money to help pay for their old age. And, they shelled out quite a bit for Bobby’s college education, and have since assumed new debt.

Bobby now has a part-time restaurant job that generates some spending money, but his work as a waiter hardly requires a college education.  He does not receive benefits in eIIn the service industry, so his folks have added him to their health plan.  His mother, Judy, worries that her son seems discouraged, and may not be putting in sufficient effort in his job search.  To get his college degree, Bobby took out a substantial student loan, which his parents had to co-sign—they are now paying off that loan with modest (if any) help from Bobby.  His mother wonders how long Bobby’s “under employment” can last?   Although Bobby will help out by buying some groceries, his parents’ expenses have gone up since he moved back home.  He continues to use their car insurance, and they fund his cell phone bill, not to mention other miscellaneous expenses.

His parents have started gently asking him to explain where all his waiter wages have gone.  His father, Peter, does not want to make an issue out of the family finances, but he has begun to resent that their retirement savings is not being adequately funded with Bobby living at home.  And, when Bobby goes out at night to hang with his friends, Judy and Peter become especially angry.  Why isn’t he taking a second job?  Why isn’t he hammering away on the computer, searching for anything that could develop into a career? What are his priorities—friends, family, or work?

Bobby appreciates that at least he has a place to live, and that his relationship with his parents has been pretty good.  But lately he has reverted to old behavior, and so have his parents.  He leaves clothes around the house, leaves his dirty dishes after a late night round of videogames with friends, and his room, which was once spanking clean when he was away, is now nothing short of chaos.  Peter and Judy never worried about Bobby when he was in college.  Now, they can’t sleep if he isn’t home at a reasonable hour, and wonder whether they should be calling or texting him at 2am.  The honeymoon is over, and spats between Bobby and his parents are more frequent.  And, Peter and Judy, who were previously pretty content, are now starting to argue with one another, taking turns defending or condemning Bobby.  In short, the previously serene household has become increasingly more tense.

Bobby feels like a 25-year-old man who is repeating life in high school.  The freedom that he was entitled to during college is now up for negotiation.  Mom starts asking about why he comes home late at night.  Dad’s not-so-subtle comments about he and Judy having to live in a tent during their retirement years adds to the conflict.  Bobby sees that some of his peers go out every night, so he feels his more modest social expenditures are reasonable.  Judy and Peter do not want their son living on the street, and agree he should be able to stay as long as needed; but, Bobby feels both guilty and a bit resentful.

What is clear is that Peter and Judy had an easier go of it when they graduated college.  While they want to help, they can’t help wondering if Bobby likes being dependent on them.

Let’s look at the concerns of parents and adult children in this situation:

Parent Concerns:

  1. INCREASED EXPENSES.  While in some cases an adult child moving back home can reduce or keep expenses level, in many cases, parents’ expenses can substantially increase, and if they have college debt, as many do, it cannot be reduced all that easily.
  2. OVERALL FAMILY DYNAMICS.  An adult child moving back home raises a number of issues for families, especially when there are younger kids still living at home.  What are appropriate rules?  How much of the family’s limited financial resources should be spent on the child returning home?  How do the other siblings or stepparents view the situation?
  3. WORRY ABOUT ADULT CHILD’S HAPPINESS AND FUTURE.  Parents want their kids to be successful and happy.  As the situation drags out, parents start to worry, “will my child ever be able to be independent?”
  4. QUESTIONS ABOUT ENTITLED ADULT CHILDREN.  Many adult children are making a good effort to do the best they can under a difficult situation.  Unfortunately, there are others who feel entitled to the lifestyle they previously had at home, and are unwilling or unable to make the required sacrifices to seek it for themselves.  Parents also fear that their adult children will use the “difficult economy” excuse to justify a half-hearted job search effort.
  5. SAVINGS FOR RETIREMENT JEOPARDIZED.  This situation impacts the parents’ ability to save for their retirement.  The challenge of helping adult children comes at a time when many parents are realizing that they have insufficient funds secured for their own retirement.  Two-thirds of all middle class baby boomers already feel that they have not saved enough for retirement.  Most face a retirement where the traditional safety net of a company pension is a thing of the past—only 18% of all people are covered by a defined benefit pension now.  Most adults currently shoulder the responsibility of providing for their own retirement, either through retirement plans or savings.  For a vast majority of the population, the amount saved will not be enough to maintain their standard of living for their lifetime.  As people live longer, retirement funds need to be stretched over an extended period of time.  A volatile marketplace adds to the uncertainty.  The cost of health care and long-term care keeps rising above inflation.  Many older people are finding it hard to keep or find well-paying jobs.  Most parents do not want to be dependent on their children’s support in their old age.

Adult Child Concerns:

  1. CAREER FRUSTRATION.  There are many talented young adults who cannot find appropriate employment.  According to the Associated Press, more than half of America’s recent college graduates are now either unemployed, or working in a job that does not require a bachelor’s degree.  It’s easy to be frustrated, especially when some find good jobs easily while many others struggle.
  2. PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTRESS.  This situation often contributes to feelings of guilt, low self-esteem and significant stress.  Kids in this situation may become depressed, irritable and anxious about the future.  While some will work endlessly on securing a job (and if striking out, add to their emotional burden), others will throw in the towel, losing motivation and hope.  Use of alcohol or other substances to ease the pain, or distract themselves in social situations, may compound the problem.
  3. LACK OF MONEY AND DEBT.  College-related debt is a nationwide problem that now totals over a trillion dollars.  The cost of higher education has grown far more rapidly than median family income.  Over two-thirds of college graduates have considerable debt, and, since many graduates cannot find gainful employment, their default rates skyrocket, and parents who co-signed loans are now responsible for the payments.  The adult children face the challenge of saving enough money to become independent, and this, in turn, reduces their contribution to family expenses.
  4. LACK OF PRIVACY.  College students have no monitoring of whom they hang out with, or how they spend their money.  Moving back home brings with it many boundary issues, and a potential lack of privacy.  Young adults generally hate this process, but feel trapped.  They have no place to go, and they feel they have no control over their parents’ observations.
  5. STRAINED PEER RELATIONS.  Having previously lived independently, the transition to life at home makes many young adults feel left out, and limited in their ability to host social activities.  How can a young adult bring a date home?  Where can they spend time alone with friends, have a sexual relationship (if they choose), or simply watch a movie with a partner without disturbance from parents or siblings?  And, if they worry excessively about their spending, many have to turn down invitations to clubs or concerts.
  6. REGRESSING.  Many adult children who move back home feel that although they are older, they are again living and being treated like a teenager by their parents.  Indeed, they may be right. While some are aware of their own contribution to this dynamic, others are oblivious.  It’s not easy for parents and young adults to openly discuss this situation!
  7. ROLE IN THE FAMILY.  As a mature, competent adult, what should your role in the family be after moving back home?  The rules of a newly acquired position in the family are often unclear, and need to be sorted out.  Both parents and adult children share some reactions to this now common situation:
  • Role confusion
  • Ambivalence
  • Uncertain of the future

Now understanding the concerns that both parents and adult children feel in this situation, let’s now explore a few possible solutions.

Possible Solutions:

  1. CONDUCT CANDID FAMILY DISCUSSIONS ABOUT FINANCES.  Discussions about money are often taboo in families.  After all, how many kids know their parents’ income or retirement savings, let alone their bills!  Far too often, there are misconceptions about what parents have, what they need, and what they hope and plan for.  For example, adult children may assume that their parents have sufficient retirement savings, when in fact, most funds have been used to maintain their current standard of living.  No one feels comfortable talking about money—in families, among peers, or even to therapists! It’s helpful to think about what you feel comfortable saying, plan a number of conversations, and, if useful, seek a third-party, such as a grandparent, close relative, or even a counselor. But, these conversations are essential.
  2. FAMILY EXPENSE ANALYSIS—WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?  Many families could benefit from tracking where their money goes.  This type of analysis allows people to evaluate what is an essential expense, and what is discretionary and can be reduced.  Set up a spreadsheet; engage in a family budget, and consider what VALUES and MOTIVATIONS each family member has in terms of financial goals, and their means to achieve it.
  3. EXPLORE NON-FINANCIAL AND FINANCIAL WAYS ADULT CHILDREN CAN CONTRIBUTE.  If the adult child has limited funds from work, there are many ways in which they can contribute around the house.  The opportunities are different now than when they were younger; they can now potentially help with caring for siblings, driving, shopping, doing chores and making home repairs.
  4. CAREER FLEXIBILITY—EXAMINE VARIOUS WAGE EARNING OPTIONS.  Young people rightfully desire a “good job” in whatever career interests them.  While they can continue to pursue this goal, they may need to show greater flexibility in the types of jobs that they will consider taking for some time.  And, they may need to consider working more than one job to make adequate contributions to the family while they save for their future plans.
  5. TIME TABLE—TARGET GOALS.  While some things are beyond one’s control, it’s helpful to set up a desired target date to remain on track toward specific goals.  Keep an eye on this; it may be helpful to schedule regular, short meetings to see where each of the goals stands, and if the planning needs to be modified.
  6. POSITIVE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT.  The emotional and economic stress for young adults and their entire family is very real.  If family members can be supportive of one another, the process becomes much more manageable.  A good mantra may be, “we’re all in this together.”
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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, M.D. is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a ...

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Rand Spero, CFP®, MBA, Ed.M.

Rand Spero, CFP®, MBA, Ed.M.

Rand Spero, CFP®, MBA, Ed.M. is a founding advisory council member for The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and president of Street Smart Financial, a fee-only financial firm that works with individuals and families on their long-term planning...

To read full bio click here.