Difficulties in Emptying the Nest

I know I am a curmudgeonly old troglodyte, but there are many phenomena present in modern society I don’t understand. I don’t understand why, when the plane lands, and the cabin staff give the approval, ninety five per cent of people have to check their mobile phones. They are obviously more important than I am with million dollar contracts waiting for approval or their tests for cancer imminent. And I don’t understand the necessity of those on Facebook to share with me the coffee they have just imbibed or the surprised look on their dog when they smeared its favourite toy with chilli. I don’t understand why in emulation of American culture I have to endure children assailing me on Halloween with the nonsense about trick or treat. I don’t understand why in a modern democracy so many of our fellow citizens still want to hang on to the security blanket of the monarchy. I don’t understand why the Australian cricket team couldn’t beat the Clermont under nines. Now all these phenomena are beyond my comprehension, and I can accept that my poor intellect and my traditional attitudes may be part of the problem. But let me relate to you a social phenomenon that confuses me more than most.

Some have argued that modern society provides few yardsticks for the progress of individuals from childhood to adulthood. They lament that there are few “rites of passage” to provide markers on such progress. Primitive societies put great store in celebrating the symbolic graduation from immaturity to maturity in both physical and psychological contexts. In our society few such markers remain and they are at the best ambiguous. Perhaps we could accord such status to such events as reaching the age of consent, being old enough to drink or get a driver’s licence, or even more irrelevantly when you get your first I-phone or first achieve 100 Facebook “friends” or whatever. But these occasions relate only to the age and individual circumstances of the individual and not to any demonstration of maturity.

In my mind one such rite of passage, that has greater weight as a reflection of maturity, is leaving home. Can you remember when it happened to you? It was a delightful composite of fear and exhilaration. How would you cope? But it offered the prospect of being independent and free of parental strictures.

In the best circumstances, we left home knowing that we were still welcome back home and if things went wrong we could return to the parental fold and still be embraced. But it compelled us to live our lives relatively independently. We learnt, often in cooperation with others, how to manage a household, care for ourselves and make many of life’s important choices without parental support or, for that matter, interference.

But statistics show that in today’s world fewer children are leaving home and when they do it is often later than was the norm in my youth. In Australia almost a quarter of adult children in the age bracket of 20 – 34 now live at home. In some countries the trend is even worse. A recent Canadian census released in September 2012 showed that, of kids aged 20 to 29, over 42% live with their parents!

As one cynic suggests can this be because “20 something people are frail, lonely and frightened at night whereas their older parents are robust have more than 400 Facebook friends and are out on the town all night”?

Of course it is not the case that some of these children have never left home, it is just that when they did life was not so convivial as it was when mum cooked and washed for them and they could borrow dad’s car whenever they liked, and whenever they had the need there was always food and drink in the refrigerator. Faced with these unsurmountable obstacles naturally they returned home! These are the so-called “boomerang” kids.

Sometimes having an adult child in the household can work out. This occurs when the child assumes an adult role and contributes appropriately to the household. But oft times the opposite is true and continuing to live at home expecting the privileges and benefits of a younger child lock them into perpetual adolescence.

David Orr, CEO of the English National Housing Federation says,

“We’re delaying adulthood for grown-ups kids who are left stuck in their childhood bedrooms. As a result, parents are also trapped, unable to move on with their lives and benefit from the freedom which comes when their sons and daughters move out.”

The major motivations for young people to leave home are for independence, because of conflict, or to live with a partner. If none of these are very strongly felt and there is support, a reasonable amount of independence and freedom available at home, and some financial advantage in living at home (as there almost always is) there is no driving reason to leave.

As a result, growing numbers of our adult children are trapped into parental dependency and are missing the developmental benefits associated with one of our few remaining rites of passage i.e. leaving the parental home. It is probably overstating the effect to suggest it is contributing to the infantilising of our young adults, but it would be prudent to have some concerns in this regard.

5 Replies to “Difficulties in Emptying the Nest”

  1. Hmmmmm.

    For the parents: Too ‘nice’, too ‘soft’, unadmitted fear of not having access to future grandchildren, fear of societal judgment, ‘going along to get along’, avoiding conflict, an extension of mollycoddling from childhood into adulthood???

    For the ‘child’: a misplaced assumption of ‘rights’, unwillingness to live in ‘lesser circumstances’ than accustomed, comfort, fear of ‘the unknown’, laziness, freeloading, uncertainty about ownership of the Xbox, a fully stocked fridge, convenience???

    But what do we do? Maybe have a series of uncomfortable, necessary conversations? Maybe grow a spine? Maybe sell up and move into a one bedroom apartment at the Gold Coast?


  2. Thanks Ted
    it’s a conversation that gets a lot of airplay with parents I know. A few points:
    1. Two of the reasons children used to leave home as early as possible were sex and alcohol. (Part of your ‘rites of passage’. With more liberated views at home on both this motivation need not apply. Certainly most 20 somethings I I know have their own Queen size bed and the opportunity to use it as desired so long as reasonable courtesies apply… like being in some form of relationship. In our home that means ringing her home for dinner to dine with the family.
    Likewise sensible education about drinking.
    2. The cost of housing. Kids on the rent cycle will find it impossible to buy, and even staying at home is tough. The cost of housing in Aus is absurd cf US and Europe.

    Personally I love having my 20 – 25 year old kids at home – they seem to come and go. It keeps me young and in touch with a generation who will do as much if not more for this world that ours did.

  3. Agree completely, it was sex that drove children out of home. I remember when children actually left home, got married and moved in with their husband or wife. I am dead serious, no 2 year trial period in a flat or living between 2 parental homes. People just decided they would get married and start a family and did it. Incredibly risky business I know. As I have been told, how can you possibly know you are compatible with someone unless you live with them for a year or 2? Funny though divorce rates have risen sharply with all this try before you buy practice.

    In relation to the financial motivation to stay at home I don’t think the cost of housing is necessarily the big driver. It is true that compared to incomes house prices have gone up considerably. Most couples now have dual incomes though. They also have most of the other 21st century necessities like new cars, large screen entertainment systems with surround sound, IPhone, IPad, and the list goes on. I believe it is more the need for instantaneous gratification that keeps people at home. They can save for a home or get the latest gadgetry and go out on the town each week while staying with Mum and Dad. Not a difficult decision for most.

    All that said I don’t have a problem with young people staying at home longer. If it makes all parties happy what is the problem. In Asian cultures the extended family sharing a home has been the norm for a very long time. There is generally a clear pecking order though and idleness is not encouraged. So maybe it is just a simple matter of parents getting too soft.

  4. A Very western view Ted…. The extended family unit such as gorillas have is probably how we started out ..
    I tend to think we have been robbed of close family ties and support in the later century post-government pensions.
    On reading ‘The Good Earth’ a life history of a chinese gentleman and family .. the aged, special persons and spouses stayed in the family home, coming and going as life ebbed and flowed!
    I dont think the material aspects of any social strata determine who wants to stay close to family. Sure it is cheaper to live together .. very handy when you are younger or older, smarter also dont you think!
    Being one thats returned to the family home .. it hasnt been cosy or comfortable but necessary.. and I’m catching up on ‘giving back’ but at the sametime I have regained some family ties .. and learnt about what really matters, and how to get along no matter what!
    On watching videos on youtube .. about homeless youth @invisiblepeople videoed by @hardlynormal it seems all problems become worse, once they left the home with a supporting community network who knew them and cared for them .. no matter what! Hence stronger mentally, financially and physically… rather than weaker .. xxx ILY GB

  5. Thank you all for such marvelous comments. I didn’t mean to imply that having older children in the parental home need necessarily be a bad thing. Peter and Esther make a good case for this. I must say whilst I approve of having aged children at home when there is a mutual advantage and when there is an appropriate commitment from the children I would have to say that most of the cases I am aware of come largely as a result of overindulgence of the parents and undue demands by the children. I am more than pleased that the arrangements work for Peter and Esther. But this reflects a maturity in the relationship that is often missing.

    And of course Esther is right – it is a very Western view that I put. But I would submit that such arrangements work in Eastern families largely because there is appropriate respect for the parents which is often lacking in our self-indulgent society.

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