An anti-independence culture

The 'boomerang kids' who won't leave home are a product of the times - but they could put up more of a fight.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Okay, I love my mum’s Sunday dinners. But that never seemed like a reason not to learn to cook my own. The nice thing about adulthood is that you no longer have to wait for your parents to dole out treats.

Or maybe I’m just weird. Two headline-grabbing surveys reported on 21 March 2002 painted a picture of twenty-/thirtysomethings as a generation of ‘boomerang kids’, who are reluctant to leave home in the first place and, when they do, keep going back – for Sunday dinner (57 percent), to collect their mail (19 percent) or to have their washing and ironing done (13 percent).

One of the surveys, produced for British Gas, quoted 78 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds as saying that they will always consider their parents’ house their real home – and incredibly, half of property owners and nearly half of married or cohabiting couples thought the same thing (1). The other, commissioned by BTopenworld, claimed that 27 percent of first-time home-leavers return home at least once, and that ‘one in 10 newly independent kids move out and are back again up to four times before they leave for good’ (2).

All this apron-string clinging has girded some UK columnists to poke fun at the younger generation – but it’s a gentle, indulgent kind of mockery. ‘But, really, how incredibly wet of 46 percent of adult couples to regard their parents’ houses as their real homes’, admonishes Tom ‘A Father Writes’ Kemp in the Daily Telegraph. Yet he holds back from putting the boot in, instead reassuring that ‘I am probably going to miss my boys terribly when they have gone’ and ‘they can drop in whenever they please’ (3).

The British Gas research points out that adult children’s attachment to their parents’ home is not entirely service-orientated: 31 percent of their respondents said that the thing they miss most about living at home is their parents’ company. And the BTopenworld survey claimed that 40 percent of parents whose children have recently left home miss their hands-on role.

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.

Read on:

Post-radical depression, by Jennie Bristow

(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

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Topics Politics


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