The Boomerang Generation refers to a trend in North America of young adult children, generally between the ages of 18 and 30, returning home to reside with their middle-aged parents in greater numbers than young adults in previous generations. Tied closely to social psychological life course theory, the concept offers a visual metaphor of young adults who “boomerang”—returning to and leaving the family home on several occasions before forming their own households. This pattern violates age-norm expectations that children separate physically from their parents and make their own lives sometime between age 18 and age 24.

If the transition to adulthood is defined by a series of milestones that include completing education or training, achieving economic independence, and forming long-term partnerships or establishing one’s own family, the young adult who lives at home can be seen as not fully adult. Delays in home leaving, and returns home after one has left, signify new expectations about adulthood and what it means for the different generations in the household. Research on the family life course examines several questions about this phenomenon: To what extent are young adults today more likely to live at home with their parents? To what extent does this family arrangement represent something new? Who is helping whom with what; that is, what is the familial exchange (parents to child, child to parent, mutual aid)? Finally, what is the impact of such a family arrangement on coresident adults of different generations?

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures show that of the youngest young adults, 18 to 24 years old, more than 50 percent of young men and 43 percent of young women lived at home in 2000. Among “older” young adults, 25 to 34 years old, 12 percent of men and only 5 percent of women lived with a parent. This continues a trend first noted in the 1980s when the age of home leaving increased. It is harder to ascertain how many young adults leave home and then return home more than once, but their chances of doing so doubled between the 1920s and the 1980s. One group of researchers estimate that 40 percent return home at least once. The younger the young adult, the greater the likelihood that he or she will return on several occasions, suggesting a more nuanced pattern of establishing independence than in the past.

Why are young adults today more likely to live with their parents? The timing and frequency of standard reasons for leaving home have changed. Generally, adult children still leave home to take a job, to get married, to go to college or university away from home, or to join the military. The typical permanent path to home leaving—getting married—is occurring later, around age 25 or 26, which means more young adults than ever before have never married. Other reasons that may contribute to young adults returning home include economic ones: poorly paid employment, high cost of housing, and the tradeoff between the child’s loss of privacy and the ability to save money while living with parents. Leaving home expressly because the adult child wants to be independent, which can include cohabitation with a lover or roommates or living alone, is more likely to lead back to living with parents at a later date. There are also marked cultural differences within some immigrant groups, where children are expected to live at home well into adulthood, and across native-born racial/ethnic groups.

The presence of adult children has implications for middle-aged parents or older parents whose children return to live with them. Except for the frail elderly, parents are more likely to provide the home, help, and support to their adult children than the reverse. The likelihood of being welcome at home depends on the parental situation as well as the reasons why the child lives at home. Those parents in intact, first marriages are more likely to welcome adult children back than are divorced or remarried parents. Parents who have small families are more likely to offer an adult child support than those who have large families. The unhappiest parents are those whose children have left and returned on several occasions, returning because of failure in the job market or in pursuit of education. Otherwise, parents of younger adults do not report marital problems or unhappiness specifically related to having their children back in the nest.

Thus, the idea of middle-aged parents, sandwiched between their elderly parents and demanding young adult boomerang kids who refuse to grow up or who are unable to do so, may overstate a gradual trend in families and households. Leaving home sooner or later and leaving home for good are largely related to changes in marriage patterns and to specific historical events that shaped the young adulthood of particular generations, such as world wars or access to higher education. Although some young adults will take a longer time to leave the nest completely, returning and leaving on occasion, and others will stay longer than in earlier generations, most young adults continue to endorse the norm of living independently as soon as possible.

Bibliography:

  1. Fields, Jason. 2004. America’s Families and Living Arrangements. Current Population Reports, P20-553. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  2. Goldscheider, Frances, Calvin Goldscheider, Patricia St. Clair, and James Hodges. 1999. “Changes in Returning Home in the United States, 1925-1988.” Social Forces 78:695-721.
  3. Messineo, Melinda and Roger Wojtkiewicz. 2004. “Coresidence of Adult Children with Parents from 1960 to 1990: Is the Propensity to Live at Home Really Increasing?” Journal of Family History 29:71-83.