In the spring of 1973, a couple of months before I left for college, my parents moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I have no traumatic memories of this event, and I don’t recall worrying that anyone might have thought it odd at the time. These days, my own daughter, Lizzy, a recent college graduate living 200 miles away, is dismayed when she learns that I’ve allowed guests to sleep in her sacred bedroom. If she comes back home for any reason, we’ll still be trendy: about 25 million young adults between between 18 and 34 are currently residing with their parents, and 65 percent of college grads move home for a year or two. It’s the new family paradigm of bungee families: young adults and their boomer parents, mutually attached and living together for a while longer.
Just a generation ago, the child-rearing contract was clearly designed to last for about 18 years. Most families then, like my own, seemed pleased with a planned adolescent departure date. Kids didn’t want to live at home, and after all the protesting and rebelling we’d put our parents through, they were usually relieved to see us go. By the time we’d finished high school, it was more than reasonable for our parents to assume that we’d move out and one way or another (through a job, going to college, getting married) start to stand on our own two unsubsidized feet.
In its basic form, this story holds that most emerging adults still living at home are wretched, entitled, or manipulative kids, who are victimizing their hapless “permaparents.” These parents, in turn, should get their own lives, stop being wimps and concierges, and escort their leeching offspring out the door. Good parents raise differentiated individuals who create their own paths.
But in much of the world, over a vast range of cultures, this severing of ties has never been a goal. From most of Africa and Latin America to Italy, the Pacific Islands, East Asia, the Mideast, and Greece, extended families provide the basic family unit. And why not?
According to Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University, a pioneer researcher on emerging adulthood, the relationships between parents and their young adults are closer than at any time since before World War II. Similarly, a recent national survey of adolescents found that 80 percent enjoyed tight connections with their mothers; fathers fared less well, but still came out at a respectable 70 percent. Perhaps to the annoyance of the individuation diehards, these teens don’t seem to be defining themselves by rejecting their parents and their parents’ choices—and they appear to be growing up pretty well anyway.
Growing numbers of the emerging adults (and parents) I treat are trying to stay deeply connected, rather than separate from each other. These days, I’m working to support them, rather than to challenge their dependence, as I might once have done.
There’s no question that the transition from adolescence to full-fledged adulthood lasts longer than it used to. Emerging adults are taking five to ten years longer than a generation ago to meet the common measures of adulthood: getting and keeping a job, finding a life partner, having a family, attaining some financial independence, taking on responsibilities, owning property, even just feeling grown up. There’s some substance to the idea that age 30 now looks a lot like our age 20 did. It’s common in the industrialized world, not just in the United States, and it opens up a window for both amazing self-discovery and a crushing sense of personal defeat.
In addition to responding to the challenges of a changing economy, the new bungee family has evolved as a consequence of dramatic shifts in the intimacy expectations and opportunities for emerging adults, who enter into first marriages significantly later now: about ages 26 for women and 28 for men. They’re older, but still not so old. Economic uncertainty probably plays a role in relationship instability and reinforces a shorter-term approach to looking for love. Even quite committed young couples speak of waiting until they’re more established—settled at work, finished with their schooling, more hopeful about their economic futures—before tying the knot. It’s got to be hard to imagine being responsible for someone else, much less supporting a family, when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
We boomers worry loudly and chronically about a new generation of “commitment-phobes,” but we ourselves have paved the way for breaking out of the traditional, rigid, heterosexual dictates that once sent emerging adults scurrying to marry early and stay that way for life, happy or not. We demanded “freedom,” which meant acceptance for cohabitation (whose rates since 1960 have increased more than 1,100 percent), serial monogamy, single unwed parenthood, gay and lesbian unions, and the choice to remain single and childless. About half of us have divorced, remarried, and (quite likely) divorced again. Many boomers have dated our own way through the adolescence of one or more of our kids, who may have parents they never see, half-siblings, stepsiblings, stepparents, and ex-stepparents. They’ve ridden, without choice, whatever relationship roller-coaster rides we’ve taken them on. It’s no wonder that they may be leery of closing the deal too soon!
The new bungee family offers emerging adults—and our fragmented social fabric—a healing alternative, one that’s injecting the best social capital available into the human mix. It may represent today’s best promise of real multigenerational relationships: attachment, connection, support, and a warm blanket on a cold night. Our loss of economic capital is troubling, but it’s being made intolerable by the attendant drop in social capital. Rich or poor, our emerging adults may be unable to take hold without having people they can rely on; though there are many kinds of social capital, a loving family is surely the most essential of them all.
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Martha Straus, PhD, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Antioch University New England, is the author of No-Talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents, Adolescent Girls in Crisis, and Treating Traumatized Adolescents: Development, Attachment, and the Therapeutic Relationship.