In May, the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time in over 100 years, more American adults ages 18–34 live with their parents than in any other arrangement: 32 percent, narrowly edging out marriage and cohabitation at 31 percent. According to Pew, the usual suspects—a sluggish job market, repercussions of the Great Recession, widening income inequality—are not technically responsible for this trend. That honor goes instead to falling marriage rates and rising housing costs (which, of course, aren’t unrelated to a bad job market and widening income inequality).
The reaction in the American press has primarily taken the form of handwringing. “The empty nests are filling up,” warned the New York Times. A Money article explored what’s “to blame” for “boomerangers” being “stuck in the nest.” (Answer: falling marriage rates and rising housing costs!) The only “silver lining”? According to Forbes, it’s that your slacker children might start cooking for you.
Here’s an idea: Instead of bemoaning re-nesters, why don’t we all admit that living with your parents as a young adult is a perfectly fine thing to do? And not just because, yes, it saves a metric butt-ton of money. The problem isn’t that American young adults live with Mom and/or Dad. It’s how.
The primary issue is that American parents have long championed emptying the nest as a sign of successful childrearing. And for their part, American young people buy into a strange mythology that they must relocate far from their families and reinvent themselves at risk of otherwise being stuck as their young selves forever. But this is a ridiculous social construct. It’s not the norm in Europe, where nearly half of all young adults age 18–29 live at home. It’s one largely absent in, for example, Germany, which, coincidentally, U.S. News and World Report currently lists as the best place in the world to live.
Indeed, 71 percent of German women and 83 percent of men between ages 18–24 live at home. Once they near their thirties, those numbers plunge—to 9 percent of women and 18 of men—but that’s because almost half of that demographic is married or cohabitating, compared to 31.6 percent of their American counterparts.
German adults routinely live at home until they settle down with a partner. Yes, this saves money. And yes, saving money is praktisch, or practical, the Germans’ highest compliment, so it’s no surprise they do it this way. But still—living at home isn’t some new trend that surfaced with Merkel austerity, it’s a long-established custom. And strangely, most of these German young people are functioning adults, and neither they nor their parents are in a shame spiral about their living arrangements.
First off, German parents don’t seem to have the obsession with “reclaiming” their home from their children that Americans do. This is because they live with their adult children—prepare to be shocked—in the same way they’d live with any other adults in a Wohngemeinschaft, a nice long German word for “flat share” that literally translates to “living community.” Young adults are expected to pick up after themselves, do some or most of their own shopping, and if they’re earning money, contribute to the rent or other household expenses. Perhaps many American parents bemoan the continued encroachment of their nests simply because they don’t know how to stop treating their children like children.
Of course, Germans also treat their children differently when they’re children. Specifically, in ways that foster independence and autonomy. This is readily on display in their awesomely treacherous playgrounds, or as they walk or ride the U-Bahn to school alone, or in their rooms, where they, like their parents, are expected to close the doors and bask in that most cherished German value: personal space.
In the well-to-do family in Münster that hosted me the summer after my freshman year in college, the two daughters (16 and 18) were trusted to drink alcohol responsibly (the legal age for beer and wine is 16) and had no curfews to my knowledge. They didn’t enjoy being drunk and only went clubbing on special occasions. (The older daughter’s favorite place had a swimming pool in the middle of the dance floor, and she explained to me that it was only fun to go there without her style-cramping boyfriend.) Meanwhile, the 24-year-old son was so independent that he maintained his own grocery stash, rarely joined family meals, and indeed made himself so scarce that I’d been living there for two weeks before I even knew he existed.
Interestingly enough, I noticed the family had a closer relationship than I had with my own parents, who—like many of their American counterparts, and despite their general wonderfulness—had spent my teen years firmly all up in my business. At the parents’ anniversary party, for example, the younger daughter met and danced with a handsome Jung, and the whole family eagerly discussed this at the dinner table. At that age, I would rather have died than dish to the Schumans about my budding romances.
Similarly, I would have just as soon dug myself a hole in the backyard than hang out with Sharon and David Schuman while drinking with friends—but this certainly wasn’t the case for another family I lived with, this time in my 20s, in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. My host mother was a 50-something massage therapist and lived with two daughters about my age. The three of them regularly went together for beer and conversation at the Kneipe—accompanied, moreover, by the daughters’ boyfriends, who then came home, spent the night, and made friendly conversation over morning coffee.
This leads me to what is possibly the most important reason why many American young adults want to get out from under the parental roof: They want out from under its rules, too. They want to be able to drink, or stay up until 4 a.m. watching TV, or go out who-knows-where, or have people of whatever gender overnight in their rooms. These are utterly respectable desires for any young adult to have, and German parents are by and large unbothered by them. Correspondingly, their children are unbothered to see them swimming buck naked.
Both enamored of personal privacy and largely bereft of American prudishness, Germans recognize their adult children may have sexual relationships and largely don’t care. When I was 20 and on my junior-year abroad in Berlin, my then-boyfriend and I hitchhiked down to Stuttgart to visit his mom. (The only reason he didn’t live with her was that he’d been accepted at a university so far away from her house.) When I asked if she’d “let” me sleep in his room, he laughed for two straight minutes at my Puritanism.
If you put aside sexual skittishness, and infantilizing adult children, and worship of bootstrap capitalism, what good reasons are there for a 21-year-old to feel societally pressured out of her parents’ house if she otherwise gets along with her parents? Sure, everyone wishes, both here and in Germany and everywhere else, that every young adult had the option to live affordably on his or her own. Yes, it would be ideal if this American trend were more voluntary and less driven by a world in which this dude lives in an extra-large coffin he built himself in someone’s living room.
But still: For people with more or less functional family relationships, there should be no stigma attached to the boomerang. In fact, why don’t we euthanize that obnoxious term altogether and replace it with something more accurate? How about normal life?