Opinion and Editorial

Boomerang generation: Young adults return to parents

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on June 3, 2021
Alamy stock photo

The stigma in western societies on young adults living with parents is fast dissipating with the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.

The future looked bright and exciting for Sarah Jones in the summer of 2019. Barely 22, she had just graduated in marketing with good grades from Birmingham. The three years at university had been bliss: Heady independence away from parents, fun with new friends in pubs and elsewhere, and a little bit of study on the side. Money wasn’t a problem. Her parents, divorced, were working: mother in Nottingham, father in London, both providing a steady flow of funds from the Bank of Mum & Dad. Armed with the degree, she applied for several jobs and moved to her mother’s house, waiting for interview offers to flood in, while travelling back and forth to her father’s to tap and assess the vibrant London scene. But when months went by with little progress on the job front, Sarah decided to strike out on her own by setting up an online data-based marketing firm. That too didn’t amount to much; and then, as 2020 unfolded, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

When Britain hunkered down in lockdowns and the economy tanked, Sarah did the next best thing: hoping to use the lull to enhance qualifications, she enrolled on a one-year Masters course in September 2020 in Bath to be in a better position to get the job of her choice when things improve. Half-way through her course, she struck gold and found a decent job in London to her liking, starting this September. The only hitch now is living in London, where rents and prices are the highest in Britain. It is virtually impossible on her entry-level job to get a mortgage to buy a small flat, even if parents help to put down a decent deposit. So she took the option thousands in her age-group have taken in recent years: beating the path back to her parents’ house. She will live with her father until she is able to afford to buy her own house.

Says Sarah: “Of course, there is still some stigma to living with parents because it can bring up the stereotype of the infantilised loser who can’t really make it or survive in the real world on their own. Ideally, I and my friends would like to have houses of our own, but it is not easy. There are few jobs going. We are also saddled with lot of student debt, which affects credit rating, which affects the size of mortgage one can get. The only option is to go back to live with parents while things improve. Luckily, I am on good terms with my parents but some of my friends are in a difficult situation. They can’t afford to live on their own, nor is it easy to readjust and live with parents in adult life. But none of us think it is strange to live with parents or to say to others that I live with mum and/or dad.”

The nest that doesn’t get empty

The emotional moment of ‘fleeing the nest’ was once a high point for parents and children in western countries, where societies and lives are based on the inalienable principle of individual freedom, privacy and choice. Both used to look forward to the ‘fleeing’: the parents for the time and space they would get for themselves and their long-postponed plans, and the children for the much-coveted independence that awaited them after living for years by rules set by parents. Unlike in Asian societies, multi-generations living under a roof remains a rarity in the west, with grandparents usually living away or in care-homes, visited often or less by their children and grandchildren. But in one respect, demographers have flagged a new trend in recent years: young adults graduating in the 21st century boomeranging back to their parents’ homes after living away for some time, mainly due to economic challenges facing them.

Returning to the parental home can have significant implications for overall parent/child relations: the risk of conflict, opportunities for shared leisure time, the negotiation of adult roles and identities, and the extent to which the younger person is able to interact with their parent(s) from a position of equality rather than dependence.

A spokesperson for the Office for National Statistics, which closely tracks the trend of young adults living with parents, among other key figures, says: “The average age at which people are leaving home has been increasing. In 1997, half of 21-year-olds had left their parents homes, but now that happens between the ages of 23 and 24. There are lots of potential reasons for this: young people are more likely to stay in education or training for longer while some might be staying at home to save money to rent or buy a home of their own in the future.”

Bristol-based Roland Peter, 23, says he returned to live with parents because university was financially exhausting: “I couldn’t afford to buy a house or live outside of my parents’ house when I graduated. Especially during Masters, when I had to pay for everything out of my own wallet (besides the tuition fees). Not to mention the increased difficulties of establishing a career in the midst of a pandemic, which significantly influenced my decision to return home after university. Besides, I saw an opportunity to save money while looking for work. While the virus is active, I’ve focused on expanding my experience in my profession through fixed-term roles. It has been quite simple to adjust to living with parents after four years of university, since little has changed apart from additional responsibilities. I am very close to my family, so it didn’t take a lot to get comfortable in my home.”

But unlike Roland, not every ‘boomeranger’ is comfortable returning home. Joseph Adorisio says he does not feel independent: “I am almost embarrassed at 24 to be living at home. It is not what I had imagined my living situation to be like after graduating. That being said, this situation has effectively been forced on me so my embarrassment is slightly alleviated. I am at home because of the challenge of buying my first house and getting a job, bit of both. Buying a property as a new graduate is almost impossible as you need to have a well-paid job to be considered for a mortgage. But the job market has collapsed, meaning there are very little jobs, for which there is a lot of competition, and the competition is with people who’ve had years in the industry. How are we supposed to compete with that? My original plan was to travel for a year or get a graduate job. But there aren’t any jobs and the borders have closed so living at home was essentially my only viable option.”

Stay at home: the new normal

Sarah, Roland and Joseph’s situation is reflected in a new study by Loughborough University researchers, who estimate that 3.5 million single young Britons, without children, are now living with their parents as part of a ‘normal’ life stage. Young people’s employment has been hit hardest by the pandemic’s effects on economy and increasingly more are returning to live with their parents. The study shows how the 20 to 34-year-olds are being hard hit, adding that the ‘boomerang generation’ trend is reflected across the whole of society in the UK. It found that between 2008/09 and 2017/18, the proportion of single 20 to 34-year-olds without children who lived with their parents grew from 55 per cent to 63 per cent. Single young adults are most likely to be living with their parents in their early 20s (71 per cent), but a majority still live in the parental home in their late 20s (54 per cent), before a decline among those in their early 30s (33 per cent). In the UK’s Asian communities, the study found that young adults tend to live at home for much longer.

Katherine Hill, the study’s lead researcher, says: “Children living at home well into their 20s is not a temporary phenomenon, it’s here to stay. A lot of young people will spend almost a decade of their lives living like this. Government needs to respond to this not just by helping people get on the housing ladder, but also ensuring they do not increase the strain on already-stretched families by penalising them through the benefits system. As a start, they should stop deducting housing benefit from parents who live with sons and daughters who do not have sufficient earnings to pay rent.”

Apart from the reality of the growing ‘boomerang generation’, Hill’s study found diverse reasons that influence key decisions, such as the needs of the young adults and the resources that their families can offer. On the one hand, being unemployed or in low-paid work makes it harder to move out in the early 20s, but on the other, parents in more advantaged situations can more easily offer support, and people in their later 20s and early 30s more often return to more comfortable homes. The decisions about residence are based on highly individual circumstances and needs, which means, for example, that even though better-off parents find it easier to provide for this group of young adults, there are many cases where those with more modest resources end up doing so.

The pandemic has affected young people across the diverse UK population. Says Leicester-based Uday Dholakia, senior partner at Global Consulting UK — that recently opened an office in Dubai: “British graduates, for that matter young people, caught up in the Covid redundancies have had no option but to return to their parents’ abode to retrench their plans for buying their first property and securing a permanent job. This is true of working-class Asian families, as often their children have opted for less prestigious academic institutions. In sharp contrast, the well-off Asian families and the professionals with access to cash and credit lines have been aggressively supporting their children with deposits to purchase first-time properties. The lawyers are snowed under with conveyancing work. Covid seems to be perpetuating the class divide.”

The parent trap

If the young adults find life difficult enough in the wider world to return home, parents may be pleased or not-so-pleased when they find that their ‘empty nest’ has been filled again. Says Rachael Adorisio, Joseph’s mother: “There has not really been any readjustment because we only had one week on our own (so didn’t get used to the ‘empty nest’) and our youngest had to return from her gap year travels due to the first Covid lockdown. Then the two boys returned from university. House returned to being full, busy and messy, and constantly having to provide lots of food. Currently they don’t contribute though two of them contribute by buying ingredients and cooking meals for the family. They have zero-hour contract jobs, so pay is erratic.”

She recalls her own situation while leaving her parents’ house years ago, and adds that once she finished post-graduation at university and got a proper job, she did not live at home again. Roland’s mother, Molly Peter, prefers that he return home after university until he can find work and afford to live somewhere else, and adds that there have not been any issues since he moved back, “other than the house being a lot louder”.

The impact on parents can encompass the full range of outcomes. A study at the London School of Economics found that adult children who return to live with their parents cause a significant decline in parents’ quality of life and well-being. Researchers analysed data from people aged over 50 and their partners in 17 European countries and found that parents’ quality of life decreased when an adult child moved back to an ‘empty nest’, regardless of the reason for their return. However, there was no effect when other children still lived at home.

The different reasons for returning home, such as unemployment and partnership breakdown are, in themselves, distressing to parents. The study adds that the return of a child causes a significant decline in parents’ well-being. Marco Tosi, the study’s co-author, says: “When children leave the parental home, marital relationships improve and parents find a new equilibrium. They enjoy this stage in life, finding new hobbies and activities. When adult children move back, it is a violation of that equilibrium.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London.)

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