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'Crowded Nest' Syndrome Strikes Many US Homes - 2004-03-15


It used to be in the United States, at least to hear the older generation tell it, that young people reaching adulthood could not wait to leave home and be on their own. And their parents longed for an empty nest and quieter lives. But young people are spoiling these plans. According to the 2000 Census, nearly four million Americans aged 25 to 34 are still living in their parental homes or have moved back in with Mom and Dad. Boomerang kids, as they're called, leave home for college or a job or the military, only to end up back home. Newsweek magazine called them "adultolescents," young adults who just aren't ready to face the world on their own.

According to a 2002 survey by Monstertrak.com, an online job-search firm, 60 percent of college students said they expect to live at home after graduation.

As University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg puts it, the conveyor belt that once transported adolescents into adulthood has broken down. He says a tight job market and tougher educational requirements have persuaded many young people to postpone their independence. "In many areas, the cost of housing is prohibitive. In other areas, it's very hard to find a job with benefits. And so families are being called upon to help out, and mostly, they're responding. The job description of parents is being rewritten. It's a longer expectation of investment in helping out," he says.

Karen Jespersen and her husband, Jim, were accommodating when their son Peter, who's now 25, drifted back to their Darien, Connecticut, home after four years. It's been almost two years since, and Karen Jespersen is beginning to wonder whether Peter is getting just a little too comfortable. "He says he'd like to pursue medical school and needs to save his money. And that's why he's living at home," she said.

A boarding house without the rent. Peter has a fulltime job in finance. So why not just kick him out? "Well, I think we have to discuss it with him. In our area here, so close to New York City, the cost is so high for young people to get a place that you have to live with several people. So what he's doing is living with us, supposedly saving his money, and visiting his friends in Manhattan every weekend," she says.

While many young Americans get into tough situations like losing a job and reluctantly accept their parents' invitation to move home for awhile, Ms. Jespersen says others feel entitled to parental support any time they need it. She admits that she and Jim, and parents like them, help enable this dependency by spoiling their kids. "We wanted them to have, you know, an opportunity for an education advancement or travel in college and, you know, felt that if we gave these things they would understand and appreciate them and then be able to do that for their children. But now they're thinking that, hey, they're pretty happy continuing this lifestyle. They don't really want to settle down," she says. Newsweek says these adultolescents lack the traditional itch to get married, have kids and buy a home. The average age for first marriages in the United States is now 26, four years older than it was in 1970. Hence there's less motivation to leave the parental bosom.

How do these young adults feel about pulling on Mom and Dad's pursestrings and sleeping in their same, old bedrooms?

After 15 years on her own in college and at a job in New Mexico, Tiffany Harrington moved back in with her mother in Virginia so she could search for a better job. "I'm 32, and I'm living at home with my mom! I mean, right now, it's great. I'm saving money. She doesn't charge me rent. I'm able to take my time looking for a fulltime job. You know, I live in this gorgeous townhouse, with parking! But, like, as far as expectations of where I thought I would be, you know, it kind of hit me yesterday," she says.

Tiffany Harrington says she's looking for an apartment and hopes to move into her own place in a couple of months.

So does 22-year-old Pat O'Sullivan, who was on his own, delivering pizzas and writing freelance articles, before moving back home with his mother in Chicago so he could finish college while working part-time. "You're basically taught growing up that the reason you continue your education is because it will get you a job in the field you want to go into. But the thing is, with so many people going to school now, and the job market flooded with people with these degrees, it's kind of like they're stuck at home. You're telling a kid that went to school for four years that, OK, now he has to go and wait tables and work at a gas station so he can get his own apartment so he doesn't have to live in mama's basement any more," he says.

Mr. O'Sullivan, who says he'd like to be out of his mom's house by summer's end, admits life back home has its drawbacks. "Little things. Yesterday I'm taking a nap in between my two jobs. She wakes me up to take the garbage out. Garbage man doesn't come till, like, nine o'clock this morning. Yet at 7 o'clock last night, during my nap, it was vitally important that I get up and take the garbage out. You know, stupid stuff like that," he says.

Such irritants can quickly grow into resentments in what Kathleen Shaputis calls the crowded-nest syndrome. Ms. Shaputis and her husband, Bob, have had so many adult children - three, off and on, plus three grandchildren - living in their home in Olympia, Washington, that she wrote a book about the experience.

Laced with bittersweet humor, it's called The Crowded Nest Syndrome: Surviving the Return of Adult Children (Clutter Fairy Publishing, Olympia, Wash.). She says there no longer seems to be a stigma attached to hanging out at home into your twenties and thirties. "The generation of the young twenties just doesn't seem that eager [to get out of the house]. They'd rather have creature comforts than independence," she says.

Creature comforts like good food, bought, paid for and usually cooked by Mom or Dad. "I can go to the grocery store and come home with a trunkload of groceries, and I literally will just see a field of empty grocery sacks before I even had a full meal. They're like locusts," she says.

And then there's the family car. "I don't care if it's just been repaired or if it's just been purchased off a used-car lot, theirs never works. They never have gas. And so mine always tends to disappear. 'Mom, can I borrow the car?'"

Many parents of boomerang kids grumble that they wish their children would work as hard to save money to get their own apartment as they do to buy compact discs, athletic shoes, and electronic gear. Maybe then the old folks could finally enjoy that empty nest they've dreamed of.

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