• August 21, 2014

The Accordion Family

A Global Check-In at the Inn of Mom & Dad 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

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close A Global Check-In at the Inn of Mom & Dad 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

Maria Termina and her husband, Alberto, live in the northwestern city of Bra in the Piedmont region of Italy. The people of Bra are traditionalists who struggle to hold the modern world at arm's length. Proud to be the hometown of Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Bra hosts a biennial festival that celebrates artisanal cheeses from around the world.

Alberto, now 67, has lived in Bra almost all his life and worked for the same firm as an engineer for about 40 of those years. Maria is 57. They have three grown children, the youngest of whom, 30-year-old Giovanni, has always lived with his parents and shows no signs of moving out. (All the names in this piece, which is based on interviews, are fictitious to protect privacy.)

Giovanni graduated from the local high school but went no further than that and is content with his steady blue-collar job as an electrician. He works on construction sites and picks up odd jobs on the side. It's a living, barely. His wages are modest, the building trades go up and down, and—in all honesty—his tastes in motorcycles are a bit extravagant. Though he is a skilled worker, Giovanni knows he could not enjoy himself with his friends as he does if he had to support himself entirely on his own earnings. But because he pays no rent and can eat well at his mother's table, his living expenses are low, leaving money for recreation.

Of the three children born to Maria and Alberto, only Giorgio—Giovanni's twin brother—lives on his own. (Laura, divorced, and her 5-year-old daughter recently returned to the nest.) Giorgio completed a degree in economics at a local university and moved to Turin, where he works in marketing and statistics. He is the odd man out, not only in his family but also among many of his family's neighbors. More than a third of Italian men Giovanni's age have never left home; the pattern of "delayed departure" has become the norm in Italy. And while it was common in the past for unmarried men and women to remain with their parents until they wed, the age of marriage has been climbing in the last 30 years, so much so that by the time men like Giovanni cut the apron strings, they are very nearly what we once called "middle-aged." That has made the country an international butt of jokes about the "cult of mammismo," or mama's boys.

It is no laughing matter in Italy, particularly in government circles where the economic consequences are adding up. The former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi came out in support of a campaign against mammismo, having been elected on the promise of doing away with "those hidebound aspects of Italian life which 'inhibit dynamism and growth.'" In January 2010, Renato Brunetta, then a cabinet minister, proposed making it illegal for anyone over 18 to live with his or her parents. He made the suggestion on a radio show where he also admitted that his mother made his bed until he was 30, when he left home.

Why should government officials—including those whose own family lives are hardly worthy of admiration—care one way or the other where adult children make their home? The fact is that those private choices have serious public consequences. The longer aging bambini live with their parents, the fewer new families are formed, and the evaporation of a whole generation of Italian children is knocking the social policies of the country for a loop. Plummeting fertility translates into fewer workers to add fuel to the retirement accounts in an aging society. The private calculations of families like the Terminas, who wonder how long they can support Giovanni, are becoming the public problem of prime ministers.

Does his "delayed departure" worry 30-year-old Giovanni? Not really. Expectations are changing, and there is little pressure on him to be more independent. His family isn't urging him to marry, and he leans back in his chair and opines that "nobody asks you the reason [why you stay] at home with the parents at [my] age ... nobody obliges me to move away."

Newton, Mass., is famous for its leafy streets, New England-style colonial houses, and well-educated parents who are professionals. The nearby universities—Harvard, MIT, Tufts—and numerous liberal-arts colleges, not to mention the concentration of health-care and computer-related industries, insures a steady influx of middle- and upper-middle-class families. Immigrants—especially high-tech professionals from Israel, India, and Russia—flock to this affluent community in pursuit of opportunity.

Newton boasts first-class schools from top to bottom; graduates of its high schools turn up regularly in the Ivy League. Poor black kids are bused in from inner-city Boston through the Metco integration program to partake of the town's exemplary educational facilities, but few poor families actually live within its boundaries. All but the fairly well heeled are priced out.

William Rollo and his wife arrived in Newton in 1989 after having lived in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Summit, N.J. A Brooklyn native, William married Janet at the age of 22 and set about completing a residency in podiatry. Their elder son, John, grew up in Newton and did well enough in high school to attend Williams College, one of the nation's most selective. Even so, he beat it home after graduating and has lived with his parents for several years while preparing to apply to graduate school. "A lot of my friends are living at home to save money," he explains.

Tight finances are not all that is driving John's living arrangements. The young man had choices and decided he could opt for more of the ones he wanted if he sheltered under his parents' roof. John is saving money from his job at an arts foundation for a three-week trip to Africa, where he hopes to work on a mobile health-care project in a rural region. It's a strategic choice designed to increase his chances of being accepted into Harvard University's competitive graduate program in public health.

John needs to build up his credentials if he wants to enter a program like that. To get from here to there, he needs more experience working with patients in clinics or out in the field. It takes big bucks to travel to exotic locations, and a master's degree will cost him dearly, too. In order to make good on his aspirations, John needs his parents to cover him for the short run.

On his own, John could pay the rent on an apartment, especially if he had roommates. What he can't afford is to pay for it and travel, to support himself and save for his hoped-for future. Autonomy turns out to be the lesser priority, so he has returned to the bedroom he had before he left for college, and there he stays.

John sees few drawbacks to that arrangement. His parents don't nag him or curtail his freedom. Janet wonders if they should ask him to pay rent, to bring him down to earth a bit and teach him some life skills, like budgeting. William is not so sure. He enjoys his son's company and was happy when John moved back into his old bedroom. Having a son around to talk to is a joy, particularly since John's younger brother is out of the house now, studying at the University of Vermont. That empty nest has refilled, and thank goodness, says William, rather quietly.

If John had no goals, no sense of direction, William would not be at ease with this "boomerang arrangement." Hiding in the basement playing video games would not do. Happily, that is not on John's agenda. William is glad to help his son realize his ambitions. He approves of John's career plans and doesn't really care if they don't involve making a handsome living. What really matters is that the work means something. It will help to remake the world, something William has not felt he could contribute to very directly as a podiatrist. Having a son who can reach a bit higher—if not financially, then morally—is an ambition worth paying for.

And it will cost this family, big time. William and Janet have invested nearly $200,000 in John's education already. They will need to do more if John is going to become a public-health specialist. They are easily looking at another $50,000, even if John attends a local graduate program and continues to live with them. Whatever it costs, they reason, the sacrifice is worth it.

What is newsworthy, throughout the developed world, is that a growing number of young adults in their 20s and 30s have never been independent. In the United States, we tend to see a boomerang pattern in the affluent upper-middle class, with young people leaving for college and then returning home. Among working-class kids, the tendency is to stay put for the duration. Only one-quarter of today's college students are full time, living on campus, and largely supported by their parents. The norm is to live at home, study part time, work to pay your share, and shelter some of the steepest costs of higher education under the parental roof.

And in most countries—outside of the social democracies—there is far less investment in dormitories and other forms of transitional housing, meager government financial aid, and a historical pattern of pursuing university degrees wherever you grew up. With the labor market turning a cold shoulder to new graduates, simply staying at home seems the only option. Hence in Italy today, 37 percent of men age 30 have never lived away from home. Their counterparts in Spain, Japan, and many other developed countries are following a similar path: Millions are staying at the Inn of Mom and Dad for years, sometimes for several decades longer than was true in earlier generations.

In the United States, we have seen a 50-percent increase since the 1970s in the proportion of people age 30 to 34 who live with their parents. As the recession of 2008-9 continued to deepen, this trend became even more entrenched. Kids who cannot find jobs after finishing college, divorced mothers who can't afford to provide a home for their children, unemployed people at their wits' end, the ranks of the foreclosed—all are beating a path back to their parents' homes to take shelter underneath the only reliable roof available.

To some degree, that has always been the way of the private safety net. Families double up when misfortune derails their members, and the generations that have been lucky enough to buy into an affordable housing market, that enjoyed stable jobs for decades, find they must open their arms (and houses) to receive these economic refugees back into the fold. Blue-collar working-class families and the poor have never known anything different: Their kids have no choice but to stay home while they try to outrun a labor market that has become increasingly inhospitable.

Their parents have had it hard as well, as layoffs have spread through the factories of the Midwest and the South; pooling income across the generations is often the only sensible survival strategy, even if the climate becomes testy.

Until relatively recently, the middle class in most prosperous countries did not need to act as an economic shock absorber for such a prolonged period in the lives of their adult children. Their households might have expanded to take in a divorced offspring or support a child who had taken a nonpaying internship, but the norm for most white-collar parents was to send young people out into the world and look on in satisfaction as they took their places in the corporate world or the professions, found their life mates, and established their own nests.

Why, in the world's most affluent societies, are young (and not-so-young) adults unable to stand on their own two feet? Is it because we have raised a "slacker generation" that is unable or unwilling to take the hard knocks that come with striking out on their own? There are questions of taste lurking here: Young people in the middle class want jobs that are meaningful, rather than a means of putting a roof over their heads. They are not as eager as the "60s generation" of yore was to sleep on floors and wear clothes with holes in exchange for their independence.

And it is not especially painful for many of them to stay at home, because they share a lot of interests with Mom and Dad. Parents and their adult children are not staring at one another over the chasm of a "generation gap," but likely share similar tastes in music, movies, and, in many households, politics. That infamous gap was a product of the disjunctures that separated the generation that came of age in World War II from their boomer children, and it loomed large. But it has not emerged in succeeding generations: The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan perform to sell-out crowds with gray hairs and twenty-somethings in the audience.

Still, we should not overemphasize the role of taste in spurring the trend toward accordion families. There is an unmistakable structural engine at work. International competition is greater than it once was, and many countries, fearful of losing markets for their goods and services, are responding by restructuring the labor market to cut the wage bill. Countries that regulated jobs to ensure they were full time, well paid, and protected from layoffs now permit part-time, poorly paid jobs and let employers fire without restriction. That may serve the interests of businesses—a debatable low-road strategy—but it has destroyed the options for millions of new entrants to the labor market throughout advanced postindustrial societies.

Japanese workers who once looked forward to lifetime employment with a single firm have gone the way of the dinosaur. American workers have seen the emergence of contingent labor (part-time, part-year, and short-term contracts), downsizing, offshoring, and many other responses to globalization that have exposed the American work force to wage stagnation and insecurity. European labor is arguably facing a very rocky future as the global consequences of the current financial crisis weaken the economies of the European Union and threaten the social protections that made them the envy of the developed world.

Eventually, those conditions will envelop the entire work force. For the time being, though, they are most evident in the lives of the least powerful: new entrants to the labor market, immigrants, and low-skilled workers. The generation emerging from college in the first decade of this century has been struggling to find a foothold in a rapidly changing economy that cannot absorb its members as it once did, while housing prices—foreclosure epidemics notwithstanding—are making it hard for them to stake a claim to residential independence.

They fall back into the family home because, unless they are willing to take a significant cut in their standard of living, they have no other way to manage the life to which they have become accustomed. Moreover, if they aspire to a professional occupation and the income that goes with it, a goal their parents share for them, it is going to take them a long time and a lot of money to acquire the educational credentials needed to grab that brass ring. Sheltering inside an accordion family leaves more money to pay toward those degrees.

So what's the big deal? In earlier eras, people lived at home until they married. Is there anything new here? Yes and no. For several decades now, middle-class people in the United States, at least, expected to see their children live independently for a number of years before they married, and parents expected to have empty nests once their kids passed the magical mark of 18.

That formation was so widespread that it became a national norm, and it was made possible by a rental housing market and patterns of cohabitation (romantic, roommates) that made independence affordable. And for many, it still is. Yet increasingly the forces of labor-market erosion and rising housing and educational costs have combined to put independence out of reach.

Societal norms—the expectations that people bring to the table when social change is in the air—matter for how parents around the world view these new family formations. In Japan, where I found that parents expect discipline and order, this new trajectory is disturbing and tends to be defined as personal failure. Italian families, by contrast, report that they enjoy having their grown children live with them, however vexing it may be for their government.

Spanish parents and their adult children are angry at their government for facilitating lousy labor contracts that have damaged the children's prospects, but they know that it can be a joy to be near the younger generation.

In America, we deploy a familiar cultural arsenal in crafting meaning: the work ethic and the hope of upward mobility. If Joe lives at home because it will help him get somewhere in the long run, that's fine. If he's hiding in the basement playing video games, it's not fine. The accordion family has to be in the service of larger goals or it smacks of deviance.

All of these adaptations are responses to central structural forces beyond the control of any of us. Global competition is taking us into uncharted waters, reshaping the life course in ways that would have been scarcely visible only 30 years ago. It's a brave new world, and the accordion family is absorbing the blows as best it can.

Katherine S. Newman is the James B. Knapp dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University. This essay is from her new book, The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition, recently published by Beacon Press.

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