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Exactly Why Are the Kids Coming Home?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The age of "residential adolescence" is upon us, apparently. Nearly 45 percent of adults ages 20 to 24 now live at home with their parents. That's 1.7 million more than in 2005.

Nicholas Retsinas, a real estate expert at Harvard Business School, blames the trend in part on tough times. Jobs are hard to come by, and lenders have become super-strict about writing mortgages. Economics no doubt play a part.

But this return to the nest didn't start with the 2008 economic meltdown. Many children were already moving back home because -- pardon the bluntness -- they are slackers, and their parents are doormats.

The phenomenon was central to the 2006 movie "Failure to Launch," about a 35-year-old still living with his suburban parents and whose best friends were living with theirs. In scenes meant to be funny, the mother serves him a pancake-and-sausage breakfast and vacuums the crushed chips from his bedroom rug. The parents eventually trick him into leaving, then apologize(!) when he discovers their ruse.

Retsinas sees a change in the traditional adolescent yearning to "escape from parental rules, schedules and oversight." I see children returning to homes where there is none of the above. If anything, they're freer, since any money earned can be spent on fun things, not food, shelter and cable TV.

One mother I know hires someone to mow the grass, as her 25-year-old son and girlfriend hang out in his (now their) room. They ditched their apartment last summer, arguing that they needed a few rent-free months to save for their own place. Almost a year has passed, they're still there -- and they're working almost not at all.

I appreciate that young people have lost jobs and take on household duties when they move home. Some contribute rent. Some have returned to school. And some are even supporting unemployed parents.

But I've seen too many cases of children simply living off hardworking parents. A divorced manicurist told me that her at-home daughter had dropped out of college a few years ago. I asked her what the 26-year-old was doing. "Nothing," she responded, somewhat embarrassed.

But what about the freedoms of having one's own pad as immortalized in such TV shows as "Friends" and "Sex in the City"? In my observation, most "unlaunched" 20-somethings pretty much do as they please. Parents who didn't ask their high-schooler where she was at 2 a.m. are not about to confront their 24-year-old.

Some bring home lovers for the night. There was a time when unmarried sex partners, even if acknowledged, could not share a bedroom in the parental home. It is now no longer rare to see middle-class parents taking in their unmarried daughter, her baby and the boyfriend.

Why do parents do this? For starters, they may never have established an identity apart from being parents. Perhaps their homes had already become motels, with each teen having had his or her own room with cable, high-speed Internet and a parking space. (All that was missing was a minibar.) Perhaps they lack the guts to say "go."

A reviving economy will surely change some of these dynamics, as children genuinely stuck at home find the resources to leave. Some parents may finally get fed up. But many adult children will conclude that living for nothing with full Mommy services and adult freedoms is too sweet a deal to end.

As for the parents, what can you say about people who do their grownup child's laundry? If they truly want their kid to leave, they should insist that he do their laundry, while noting that real-estate prices have rarely been lower.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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