But does it really matter, whether adults’ attachment to their parental home is emotional or more directly parasitical, whether they treat their parents’ house like a hotel or like a therapy session? It all comes down to the same thing: independence aversion, and a startling reluctance to grow up.
While both of these studies are interesting, neither set of statistics should be taken as gospel – and they are spun quite differently. So the BTopenworld study states categorically that, in fact: ‘Money, not sentiment, is the main reason why most first-time home-leavers return to the family nest’, with 30 percent going home to save on cash. Some have greeted this emphasis on the financial factor as commonsensical, citing the price of buying and renting in London, and the high standards of material comfort enjoyed by middle-class youngsters.
But this notion that accommodation costs are suddenly not worth the trade-off with disposable income is nonsense. In the British Gas survey, almost half of the respondents from Scotland and the West Midlands – areas hardly noted for their high house prices – said that they would most miss the low rents of the parental home, compared to 23 percent of Londoners. More fundamentally, if we lived in a culture that prized independence, what better use of your salary could there possibly be than living in a place of your own? Since when did a roast chicken and a damp course become a better perk than being able to make your own life, in your own way, outside of the comforting – but sometimes suffocating – bosom of your family? In the past, these relative discomforts were seen as a price well worth paying for independence.
The decisive factor is not whether you can afford to live alone, but whether you want to. And what we are looking at among the ‘boomerang kids’ is a generation running scared from their own adult lives.
‘Once upon a time’, writes Christina Odone in the Observer, ‘if you were over 21, it was a social stigma for you to slink back to the bedroom where your teddy bear still sat in pride of place on the duvet with its daisy or boat patterns.… Adulthood meant cutting the apron strings and forging a cosy domesticity of your own, with the man or woman of your choice’ (4). All that has changed, she says: jobs have become less permanent, intimate relationships more complicated, and so it is no surprise that ‘those who yearn for uncomplicated warmth and unquestioning acceptance go back to Mum and Dad’. There is a lot in what Odone says, but I wouldn’t be so sympathetic.
Today’s buzzword for describing twenty-/thirtysomethings is ‘choice’. That the linear transition from school to work and from parental home to marital home, is no longer demanded of young people is often presented positively, in terms of giving them more choices over where to live, what to do, who to spend their lives with. Simultaneously, there is a concern that this generation is collapsing under the burden of too many choices – that, bereft of a structure to their lives, young people are frantically searching for signposts and goals.
In fact, the ‘choice’ element is overstated. The ‘boomerang kids’ are drifting. Set adrift on the sea of graduation, with nobody telling them to marry, have kids, stick at their jobs or stick at anything really, insecurity leads quickly to lethargy. The understandable trepidation experienced by young people about embarking upon the next stage of their lives soon translates into procrastination, as young people put off the marriage, kids, career move and cling to the comforts of their childhood home, and the ease of their relationship with Mum and Dad. If they stopped drifting and did more choosing – as in actively deciding what to do, and going for it – the boomerang kids would probably be a great deal more fulfilled. So why don’t they?
It’s not that the younger generations are naturally lazier, nervier and less aspirational than their predecessors – that really would be depressing. It’s that they have grown up into a culture that celebrates security over independence, safety over risk, experiencing present-day contentment over seeking long-term fulfilment. According to the BTopenworld study, only 15 percent of parents felt relief when their children left home for good. Maybe it was ever thus, but only up to a point – in the past, parents’ sense of their duty to see their children settled into adult life would have overridden more emotional worries about the little darlings faring alone. That parents no longer feel obliged – or even able – to throw their adult children out into the big wide world indicates how little virtue today’s culture sees in independence.
But just because the younger generations grow up in this culture does not mean that they have to obey its rules. Nobody is encouraging you to leave home – but nor are you forced to stay. If the boomerang kids would only straighten themselves out a little and move forward instead of round and back, they might find there is more to life than Sunday dinner.
First published by spiked, 26 March 2002.
(1) You treat this house like a hotel, British Gas, 20 March 2002
(2) ‘Boomerang kids keep bouncing back to the family nest’, Btopenworld press release, 21 March
(3) A father writes: ten more years, Daily Telegraph, 23 March 2002
(4) Why Larkin was wrong, Observer, 24 March 2002