By her mid-40s, Diana Rodriguez had envisioned a life free of kids. She’d had hers early; two sons were grown and married, and her daughter was in college. “I was kind of looking forward to having an empty nest, because when you have your children so young, you never had a chance to explore life and not have those responsibilities,” said Rodriguez, 54.
Instead, her sons’ marriages broke up and they moved back into the Alexandria, Virginia, house she shares with her husband, who is not their father. “He didn’t say no, but it was a situation where it wasn’t the master plan,” she said.
Maybe not, but Rodriguez’s sons are part of an increasingly dominant cohort of adult children who live with their parents. A study recently released by the Pew Research Center found that 32 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds now do so — more than in any other living arrangement. The trend is the reverse of what their parents grew up with.
Baby boomers came of age during an all-time low in grown children living at home — in 1960, just 19 percent did. “I graduated from college and left,” said Courtney Taliaferro, 52. “I always knew that if I got in trouble that I had a place to go back to, but I never wanted to go back.” But her 25-year-old son has lived with her and her husband in their Leesburg, Virginia, home for two years, and most of his friends are doing likewise. Taliaferro’s husband, Will, 52, said, “It might cramp our style a little bit, but we really just want him to be happy. Our thing is if we can help him get some traction now by supporting him a bit longer, then we should do what we can.”
For the middle-aged people whose houses have become post-college apartments and sometimes even marital homes for the next generation, this new normal has good and bad ramifications. For Rodriguez, having her sons around meant she and her husband suddenly felt awkward in their own home. “They were not always there, but often we were like, ’Well, do we invite them to eat dinner with us?’” she said. “You feel like you don’t want to leave them out because they are another household person.”
At the same time, the house felt crowded. “It’s like, ’Oh, you’re in the kitchen making something? Well, I was going to make something.’” Rodriguez said. “It’s not a big thing, it’s the little things — the cumulative effect of, ‘Gee, I really wish I could walk around in my underwear.’”
Some parents, however, welcome the incursion. “It has never bothered me for one moment that they’re here,” said Jim Burt, 58, whose 26-year-old son lives at home and whose 28-year-old daughter did until recently. “I love them both dearly, and I love seeing them here.”
His enthusiasm represents a generational shift: Parents now are much more likely to see their children as friends. Today’s parents of young adults “were the young people of the famous generation gap of the ’60s and ’70s; they were complaining that their parents were so stuffy,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts. “When they became parents, they set out to be different from their parents, and I think what we’re seeing is that they succeeded.”
Changes in child-rearing practices have had a big effect, said Stephanie Coontz, research director at the Council on Contemporary Families. “There’s been a trend . . . where you really allowed the child to explore their own interests rather than expect them to become a clone of you, and the result is that young people, they like their parents more than our generation did,” she said. “There’s been an increase in respect for kids, and as a result, an increase in kids seeing their parents as people they can confide in and show weakness to.”
In a 2013 poll of parents of 18- to 29-year-olds, Arnett found that 61 percent felt mostly positive about their children living at home while only 6 percent felt mostly negative. “For some reason, we have this peculiar stereotype that parents can’t stand their kids and want to get rid of them as soon as possible and groan when they show up on the doorstep,” Arnett said. In fact, he said, “it’s not this can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of-them kind of attitude.” For one, adult offspring are often easier to be around. “They’re less likely to be egocentric slobs,” he said. “They don’t need to be driven around, they don’t need help with their homework, and they can even help out.”
In fact, 67 percent of respondents said living together made them feel closer to their child emotionally. Burt’s children join him at rock concerts to see the Rolling Stones and Moody Blues, and he watches television shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” with them. “There was much more of a generation gap between me and my parents than between me and my kids,” he said.
That so many others are doing it also helps make it feel more acceptable to parents, Arnett said. Parents understand that it is more challenging now to find jobs and rent or buy a home. “This is a hard economy to break into in terms of any kind of security and predictability,” Coontz said. “Parents who can afford to give their kids the rope to come back, to say, ‘Yes, you can do this for a while. You can use this as a base. You can go back to school. You can bring your baby home if you’re a single parent.’”
But some parents worry about the future. Manana Sukhareva, 55, and her husband grew up in the Soviet Union, where “it was impossible to leave your parents because there was no way you could earn enough to rent.” So when her son Nick chose to stay in their Bethesda, Maryland, house while attending the University of Maryland at College Park, it didn’t worry her. “I thought that it was OK and it was no problem, but looking back I think it was a mistake,” she said. Nick, 28, still lives at home and works at a restaurant, four years after getting a degree in history. “Some people tell me, ‘Well, you should kick him out and he will do something.’ But as a parent you can’t kick him out.”
For Rodriguez, having her sons back taught the family some lessons in boundaries and empathy. “If it’s at all possible, you have to set up a timeline — how long are you going to live here, realizing what the expectations are, realizing it’s not going to be ideal for anyone involved,” she said.