NPR Story
12:58 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

Laying Down New Rules For The 'Not-So-Empty Nest'

Originally published on Thu July 19, 2012 9:16 am

A few years back, Sally Koslow was settling into an empty nest. Her two 20-something sons were launched out of the house and into the wider world. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, her sons landed back home. She was startled and depressed to learn they were part of a much larger trend.

According to the Pew Research Center, one-fifth of young adults aged 25-34 live in multigenerational households. The bad economy is the main contributing factor, but the trend also reflects shifts in social norms.

In her book Slouching Toward Adulthood, Koslow explores these changes and presents her research and interviews on the phase she calls "adultescence."

"When young people come back," she tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "there's a tendency for parents to treat them the way that they treated them when they were teenagers instead of establishing new boundaries, and it's not a pretty picture."

Koslow talks with Ludden about how to make the best of living with adult children.


Interview Highlights

On adjusting expectations in the 'not-so-empty nest'

"Many people find it very hard because some mothers kick right back into mothering mode and really kick it up a notch in their worrying about ... their daughter's driving late at night. And they're frustrated if their kids don't, you know, if they're coming home for dinner. Can they plan a family dinner? Some parents think of this as ... a really cozy stroll down Sesame Street. And the kids really don't want to be with them, and so the parents are disappointed."

On laying down financial boundaries

"Sometimes, parents disagree about how much help they should offer. And sometimes, financially, it's rough because ... the parents are dipping into their future retirement resources to help kids go back to college or to ... give them, let's say, a car.

"... I think these are very personal decisions. Sometimes, it's just between the parents. And sometimes, it's the parents and a financial adviser, who have to be very frank with them and say, you cannot ... pay for law school if you're going to retire in a few years. Many people in the country have lost their jobs or they've seen the portfolio seriously compromised. And as loving parents, they want to be generous, but they may have to suggest the kids take out loans. And it's very complicated."

On the causes of the trend

"I'm not necessarily blaming anybody. But if there's blame ... much of it can squarely sit on the shoulders of people like me and other baby-boomer parents who try to create lives for their children that offer their kids only the best, and sent the message that only the best would be acceptable.

"And these kids slammed into an economy where many, many people are unemployed. Many people are carrying enormous amounts of student debt. The new entry-level job is very often the unpaid internship. ... It's really a difficult picture. But parents have really helped their kids into believing that they were perfect little snowflakes who would be able to wait for the right thing to come along. And some of the young people are waiting and waiting and waiting. And in the meantime, time is not standing still, and opportunities are passing them by."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

A few years back, Sally Koslow thought her mothering years were over. Her two 20-something sons were launched into the wider world, and she was getting used to the empty nest. Then suddenly and unexpectedly, they both landed back home. Koslow was startled and depressed to learn they were part of a much larger trend. The Pew Research Center finds a fifth of young adults aged 25 to 34 live in multigenerational households. The rotten economy is one big reason, but social norms are also shifting.

Koslow explores what's changed and how to make the best of cohabitating with your adult kids in her new book, "Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-Sot-Empty Nest." We'd like to hear from you, parents and grads. If you're roommates once again, what are the new rules? 800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Sally Koslow joins us from our bureau in New York. Her latest book is "Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest." And, Sally Koslow, welcome.

SALLY KOSLOW: Hi there.

LUDDEN: So tell us more about this situation you found yourself in that led you to delve into this issue.

KOSLOW: One of my sons graduated from college on the East Coast and went immediately to the West Coast, and that was very dandy. A few years passed, he was 25, his company decided to establish a branch on the East Coast and picked him to head it up, so he returned. And we expected the stay to last about two months, but two planes flew into the World Trade Center. And after that, many businesses did not establish new headquarters in New York. His was one of them. So he started living off unemployment. He was still in his old bedroom, and that particular stay extended itself.

And we got wind of the fact that he'd actually been offered a job, but it wasn't the perfect job, and he was thinking he would pass it up. And in one shout short of an intervention, we strongly urged him to take the job. And afterwards, I started noticing how common this pattern was, that academic and social arrhythmia starts in college for people in their 20s, melting into the 30s.

LUDDEN: Social arrhythmia?

KOSLOW: Yes. Very - it's a very different picture than when baby-boomer parents were the same age.

LUDDEN: Sorry. What is social arrhythmia?

KOSLOW: Well, I'm thinking social patterns are really very different now than when - than the mothers and father who, let's say, are in their 50s or 60s were in their 20s. We had our summer of love, but most people settle down rather young and start their families reasonably young, and this isn't - there's an entirely different picture now. It's really - it's a point of pride, actually, for many people in their 20s to not be an adult and to not rush to make decisions and to extend the climate of freedom that we see in college well into the 20s and sometimes into the 30s - and sometimes gets wind up at home.

LUDDEN: Well, you set off to explore, I mean, what sounded like, reading your book, to kind of figure out what's wrong with these kids and kind of ended up looking at yourself.

KOSLOW: Yes. Very. I'm not necessarily blaming anybody. But if there's blame, it's - it can - much of it can squarely sit on the shoulders of people like me and other baby-boomer parents who try to create lives for their children that offer their kids only the best, and sent the message that only the best would be acceptable. And these kids slammed into an economy where many, many people are unemployed. Many people are carrying enormous amounts of student debt. The new entry-level job is very often the unpaid internship. There are probably six to eight people clamoring for every job that goes available in the United States. It's really a difficult picture. But parents have really helped their kids into believing that they were perfect, little snowflakes who would be able to wait for the right thing to come along. And some of the young people are waiting and waiting and waiting. And in the meantime, time is not standing still, and opportunities are passing them by.

LUDDEN: You talk about your frustration. You know, one morning, your darling is sleeping in till I don't know what hour and...

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: ...living kind of like a college dorm life without many morning classes in your house, and you're really frustrated.

KOSLOW: Yes, it's very hard to change the rules. That's - unfortunately, when people - when young people come back at - or never leave at 22 or 24 or 29, there's a tendency for parents to treat them the way that they treated them when they were teenagers instead of establishing new boundaries, and it's not a pretty picture.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get some callers on the line here. Andrew is in Nashville. Hi there, Andrew.

ANDREW: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So what are your new rules?

ANDREW: So I recently moved back in with my parents, and I think that, you know, contrary to the last time I was living at home in high school, the rules have changed somewhat. You know, I'd - I don't sleep until ungodly hours of the morning but - and I'm much more respectful their space. If I have something that I think that even remotely impinge on their life. I always got 20-something that I bring to their attention, and I'm open to taking no for an answer.

But one of the interesting things that I think has come from the discussion of the living arrangement was that, you know, my parents, for a long time, painted the pictured that they had a very - a much easier time finding meaningful work and gainful employment and so on and forth. But they never really advertise the fact that they had a lot of help, whether it was a financial loan from their parents or an extra, you know, condo that they owned or so on.

So while that's one of my specific case scenario, I do have the leg up of living with them and saving money, and, you know, I think we've made that relationship positive for both of us. And, obviously, it's a means to an end, but I can definitely identify with the awkwardness that exists moving back in with your parents and having that be your answer when you're out at dinner or a bar or work function and having someone ask what you do - what you're doing for a living, and you say you're living with your parents.

LUDDEN: It's not so common now that there's no stigma anymore?

ANDREW: You know, it's not something that I'm uncomfortable with. I'm comfortable with where I'm at. I'm ambitious. I want to get out of the house and also go back to school. And, you know, it's something that I'm proud to have a family that supports me enough to be able to create this opportunity for me when I'm in a bunch.

LUDDEN: Andrew, you mentioned the discussion. Did you and your parents sit down when you moved back in and really talk about how things would be? Or did it just sort of happen?

ANDREW: I think we haven't, you know, I had several months window where I knew that I was going to be living with them. So the conversation was kind of ongoing. It wasn't, oh, now, you're home. Let's have this conversation. As things come up, they're addressed, and I think that that's important, you know. It's a - I heard your guest speak about how, you know, it's hard to not treat them as a child anymore, but I guarantee you that the son is not thinking of himself as a child. And I think that in order to compromise on boundaries and agreements on how the living space should work, that's imperative for all parties to acknowledge it. They think of themselves as independent, and I think that's the biggest difference.

LUDDEN: All right, Ian(ph), thanks very much for the call.

ANDREW: Sure.

LUDDEN: Take care. And let's get one more here on the line. Hang on here. I'm having trouble with the - there we are. Susie(ph) in Hampshire, Illinois, how are you?

SUSIE: I'm great.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

SUSIE: Well, my daughter finished her master's degree at 26, graduated, didn't have a job, so she had to move back home. The very first day, she stood in the hallway with tears in her eyes and said, I don't want to be here. And I said, I totally agree. We really don't want you here either. We understand it's only temporary. So we - the only rule we really set up for her was that, you can come and go as you please, clean up after yourself and don't wake us up when you come home at night. And I think the difference is is that we're treating her as an adult, not as a child anymore, and it's actually turned out really well. We all get along great, probably better than she did when she was in high school.

LUDDEN: And it wasn't hard for you to make a transition there? You don't have little motherly impulses you have to suppress?

SUSIE: No. It was easy for me, not so much for my husband.

LUDDEN: Really?

SUSIE: Yeah. It was very difficult for him.

LUDDEN: How was it hard for him?

SUSIE: Well, he's, you know, daddy's little girl, and he still wants to know where she was, and who she's going with, and when she'll be home, and what was her work schedule because she's working very part time. And we just - I just kept telling him, let it go, let it go, and he's really learned. And now, he's happy, and she's happy, and we're all happy.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Susie, thanks for the call.

SUSIE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Sally Koslow, do some find that transition harder than others?

KOSLOW: Many people find it very hard because some mothers kick right back into mothering mode and really kick it up a notch in their worrying about, especially with daughters, their daughter's driving late night. And they're frustrated if their kids don't, you know, if they're coming home for dinner. Can they plan a family dinner? Some parents think of this as - it's going to be a really cozy stroll down Sesame Street. And the kids really don't want to be with them, and so the parents are disappointed.

Sometimes, parents disagree about how much help they should offer. And sometimes, financially, it's rough because they're - the parents are dipping into their future retirement resources to help kids go back to college or to - afford to give them, let's say, a car. And it's very complicated.

LUDDEN: You talked about when do you pay? How are people making these decisions? And what do you look at when you decide, you know, should you pay for X, Y or Z for your adult child?

KOSLOW: I think these are very personal decisions. Sometimes, it's just between the parents. And sometimes, it's the parents and a financial adviser, who have to be very frank with them and say, you cannot, let's say, pay for law school if you're going to retire in a few years. Many people in the country have lost their jobs, or they've seen the portfolio seriously compromised. And as loving parents, they want to be generous, but they may have to suggest the kids take out loans. And it's very complicated.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me remind people, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Gabby(ph) from Placerville, California, writes in: I'm very lucky as my mom gives me a lot of freedom. I make more effort to help with bills now and take on more chores and projects. I make sure to check in so she doesn't worry. But otherwise, not too many restrictions.

Let's take another caller. Ian also in Nashville. Hi, Ian.

IAN: Hey. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good.

IAN: I just want to call in. I might be in a little more unique situation, but I'm actually on very good terms with my parents. I, you know, love my parents with no issues there. But I'm 25, and I moved back in my parents, and, you know, I see this as totally different. You know, as far as new rules, I guess, you know, my parents will - a lot of times, they want to know, you know, will I be back or these different things, want to know where I am or going. But it's not the same way as when I was a teenager where they wanted to know because they wanted to make sure I wasn't in different influences or whatnot. It's more of convenience of, you know, it's just politeness of them being able to know maybe when I'll be back in or if they, you know, for example, we have animals, if I can let animals out or things like that. So it's not necessarily the same sort of parenting guidelines...

LUDDEN: You don't take it - you don't feel intruded upon. It's more a logistical thing.

IAN: Right. It's more like courtesy between adults. You know, they just want to know for the sake of common courtesy and for - just so that everyone is kind of on the same terms. But, you know, I'm living with my parents, but they don't, you know, wake me up and say, hey, it's time to get work. They don't say, you know, it's not like they're teaching me life skills anymore. It's just a matter of, you know, adults living under the same household showing each other some courtesy.

LUDDEN: Has there been any conflict, Ian? Has there been some issue where you guys have had to come to terms when party was irking the other one or just needed to get something to change?

IAN: Well, you know, and, you know, whenever there's people living in the same household, whether it's parents and children or, you know, just colleagues, people of the same age, there's going to be conflicts that come up. But I don't think that living with my parents has created any more issues than there would be if I was living with somebody, you know, somebody else also in their 20s. The same sorts of things come up, I think, and they're resolved easily. Like I said, it might be a little bit different. I feel like I'm in really good terms with my parents. I love them a whole lot. But I felt like things have gone about as smoothly as they possibly could. I was a bit apprehensive moving back in, but, you know, I think things have changed. And I think, in this day and age, it's a little different.

Obviously, the economy is in a rough spot and so finding a job is difficult, but I think also I've grown up in an era where, you know, we like to always tell kids, you can be whatever you want, do whatever you want, follow-your-heart kind of thing. And I think a lot of people are a little bit less satisfied with taking jobs that they may feel like aren't really going to - aren't really personally motivating to them. And, of course, you know, you have to take what you can get and make ends meet. But beyond that, I think people are looking for something that's a little bit more personally satisfying.

LUDDEN: OK. Ian, we're going to - I'm going to squeeze in another phone call here, but thank you so much for calling up. OK.

IAN: All right. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Take care. Good luck. And Roger(ph) in Kansas City, hi there.

ROGER: I'm great. A real quick comment. I've got two daughters that have graduated college. I think a lot of the deal is - I expect them to participate as a family. A lot of the rules are the same. You know, their chore list is pretty much the same. They come and go, you know, with letting me know where they're going to be and when they're going to get back. I don't know whether that's because they're daughters. And I see a lot of the issue with them not being able to move out of the house is they don't have a job that's a sustainable wage. When, you know, when I got out of college, you know, we had high unemployment, but, you know, I was able to live on the wage that was provided. I...

LUDDEN: So you have a lot of understanding there.

ROGER: Yeah.

LUDDEN: All right, Roger. We're - go ahead. We're coming up short here, so I'm going to have let you go, but thanks for calling. Thank you. Sally Koslow, anything you would have done differently or any lessons learned from your perspective?

KOSLOW: Well, there are things I did do well, I thought, which was that my kids have jobs while they were in college. I think that when my son moved back home, I would have tried to clarify what the time limit was for how long he stayed. And I wished that I had been clearer about how much time we wanted to spend together. But overall, I'm listening to some of these phone calls, and I'm wondering how the parents are feeling. You know, we heard a lot from the young people, and I loved listening to this last call, the gentleman from Kansas City, and think how really very easy baby boomers had it in their life, that it was a lot easier to get a job. And it was a lot easier to afford to get on a property ladder and rent or buy. It's rough that - but I wonder if the parents are as happy as the kids seem to be.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Sally Koslow, former editor-in-chief of McCall's magazine and Lifetime magazine, her latest book, "Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest." You can find an excerpt from it at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Sally Koslow, thank you so much.

KOSLOW: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it is Wednesday. That means Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be here with all the latest. Join us for that. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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