The Boomeranger Principle

What to do when your college graduate comes back home to roost—and has no immediate plans of leaving.

When Wilmette native Robert Malstrom graduated from the University of Illinois six years ago, he might have been ready to conquer the world. A strong student, fraternity man and captain of the college hockey team, Malstrom took his first job at a Chicago candle-manufacturing firm—temporarily—moving back to his parents, North Shore home to save money.

He’s still there.

As it turned out, he didn’t like the first job or his future prospects. So he quit, then spent years coaching Wilmette and New Trier High School club hockey teams and working as a teacher’s aide at Highcrest Middle School before finally admitting that his happiest future might be in education. He recently decided to go full-time at National Louis University to earn a teaching degree, adding yet another challenge to his already full schedule.

But for his mother, Linda, six years living with an “adultescent” college graduate in the house has been filled with much angst. “I love Robert. And he does help with some things around our house. But he needs a life of his own, and that means his own apartment,” she sighs. “If you think about it, we were married and starting a family by his age.”

The Malstrom family’s situation reflects the new American norm, especially on the North Shore. Research from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics shows that approximately 60 percent of all U.S. twentysomethings will return to live with their parents. This group of Baby Boomer offspring, also known as Boomerangers, are struggling through a life phase more popularly known as “adultescence.”

Most Boomerangers’ parents never experienced such adultescence because they graduated from college, started careers, married and had children well before they turned 30. No wonder then that those same parents now fret that there is something wrong with their adultescent offspring.

Boomerangers who grew up amidst affluence often struggle the most. As Linda explains, “It’s hard for the kids who grow up on the North Shore because they think that they have to be a lawyer, investment banker or the like.” These statistics, combined with our North Shore reluctance to publicly discuss that which is “imperfect” about our families, has lead to growing angst and lots of hand wringing, which may, in turn, gnaw away at our family bonds and psyches.

Is there any way to Make It Better for the adultescents returning home and their parents? A multitude of books and articles written by experts confirm the advice that Linda offers other parents.

“Welcome them back,” Linda emphasizes, “but put limitations on it before they move back in.” Parents should negotiate parameters with their young adults about their return home, including the anticipated length of the stay, and create a list of expectations and responsibilities that cohabiting adults normally address, like privacy and preferred methods of communication.

However, the best advice comes from Sharon Graham Niederhaus and John L. Graham in their book Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living. Simply stated, we need to change our cultural perspective and acknowledge that America is reverting to the extended family structure that was our norm until the 1950s, a system that is still the norm everywhere else on our planet, and embrace the benefits that come from welcoming our adult children back into our homes. The faster we “get over” this odd post-WWII culture of familial isolation, the sooner we can reap the rewards of being together again.

In fact, many college graduates don’t want to be dependent on their parents. So why make them feel worse by treating their return to the roost as an anomaly or even some type of failure? Instead, parents should let them know that they not only love their Boomerangers, but they like them too and welcome their company.

Growing statistics also demonstrate that happiness declines the longer a nest is empty. By nature, humans are happier living with family members that they love. An adultescent’s return can delay or reduce the pain of loneliness that their parents may eventually feel. As Graham and Graham Niederhaus write, “Boomeranger kids are actually a good thing.”

If parents embrace their twentysomethings’ return with confidence and love, set parameters that encourage psychological growth and discourage couch potato or otherwise unhealthy behavior, the return to the roost can bring new depth and pleasure to the relationship between parent and adult child.

A wise woman once said, “Don’t worry too much about potty-training, no ‘normal’ child ever wears diapers to preschool for long.”

She likely would draw a similar conclusion about adultescence. Don’t worry too much about the Boomerangers; they aren’t going to avoid the independence, responsibilities and pleasures of true adulthood forever.

Because every family is different, issues to consider and parameters will differ. But the following suggestions may help:

  • Discuss how long your Boomerangers are allowed to stay.
  • Require they make tangible contributions to the household, possibly including rent.
  • Facilitate confidence-building success by assigning household responsibilities that lead to tangible and enjoyable results, like cooking family meals, making home repairs, gardening and helping with younger siblings or grandparents.
  • Discuss privacy and communication. Agree to rules that allow parents and offspring to respect each other as adults.
  • Schedule family meetings and family fun.

A compassionate friend with whom you can share concerns always helps, too. Often, it’s not as easy for parents of twentysomethings to find an understanding ear and compassionate shoulder as it was when their children were younger.