Home stretch: What happens when twentysomethings move back in with their parents?
Spiralling property prices and the collapse of the labour market are forcing many young people (and some not so young) to move back in with their parents. But how are both generations coping with this living arrangement?
Sunday 22 April 2012
When stand-up comedian Nat Luurtsema hit the ripe old age of 28, she found herself living back in her parents' house in the Hertfordshire town of Watford. For six long months she languished amid the teen magazines and boy-band posters of her childhood bedroom, pretending to her parents that she didn't smoke and traipsing round, like a reluctant toddler, after her mum in the supermarket.
"When I moved back I really felt I had messed up. All my friends were in London and I was stuck in Watford with mum, dad and the cats," she says. "I was so lonely I started blogging about it. That turned out to be my saving grace. Loads of people started getting in touch saying they were in the same position; I even had emails from high-flying corporate managers saying they were back with mum. The response was amazing. I stumbled upon a zeitgeist."
Luurtsema, it soon became clear, was part of a "boomerang generation" – the group of young adults who have found themselves returning to the family nest due to a combination of spiralling property prices, student debt and the collapse of the youth labour market to name a few.
There is something of a preoccupation with the living arrangements of these boomerangers right now. One of the biggest shows in the States at the moment is HBO's Girls, written by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, about four twentysomethings adrift in a sea of unpaid internships and sofa-surfing in New York. Dunham, incidentally, wrote most of it while living at home with her own mum and dad. Then there's the cumbersomely titled How to Live with your Parents for the Rest of your Life – an entire sitcom built around the premise – which is currently being piloted on the ABC network. It's not surprising, then, that Luurtsema's blog was swiftly picked up by Hodder and turned into a book, entitled Cuckoo in the Nest.
The figures speak for themselves. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost a third of men and a fifth of women aged between 20 and 34 live at home with their parents. And a report published last month by the American think-tank the Pew Research Center found that as many as three in 10 are returning to the family nest – the highest proportion since the 1950s.
It does make you wonder what impact this might have in the future. Are we heading for an era where adolescence stretches right through the twenties? Are these "kippers" – Kids in Parents' Pockets – going to be enjoying company in their bedrooms and nursing hangovers at breakfast while still getting their shirts washed and meals cooked? Or will it create a new, modern family structure with stronger, more adult bonds between generations and a chance for some of your parents' terrible memories of you as a stroppy teen to be extinguished?
According to parenting expert Sue Atkins, the nature of the experience is dictated by how well a new set of boundaries is established. "Given the chance, these young adults will revert back to being teenagers again, in that they tend to defer back to who they were when the first lived at home," she says. "What parents need to do is say, 'This is a new phase of your life now and it's going to be different.' They have to sit down and have a conversation about them paying their way and what is acceptable and what is not. Then follow up on it and make sure they're not taken for a ride."
This is something 22-year old Susannah Hamilton became aware of when she moved back into her parental home in Clapham last year. "I definitely had to get used to a new adult relationship with my parents," she says. Yet it's still been a difficult adjustment, as she realised when she came in after a few drinks, smashed one of her mother's best plates, then tried creeping into her own room only to be caught by her mum on the creaky stairs. "It is slightly awkward coming back late at night, because I have to get past their bedroom to get to mine – but apart from that it's been fine. They think it's quite amusing to see me hungover at breakfast."
Then there are issues of privacy. Hamilton doesn't currently have a boyfriend, so it's not an issue, but at what stage is it OK to bring someone home? Straight after you've pulled? Or do you give it a few weeks?
James Julius, a 22-year-old part-time estate agent, who has moved back in with his parents while he saves for a deposit, says it's a situation he finds highly embarrassing when meeting girls. "What can you say? Can we k go back to yours because I still live with my mum? It's definitely a big problem. I would never bring someone random back out of respect for my parents and even with my ex-girlfriend I was never that comfortable with her sleeping over – and she wasn't either."
He thinks it's harder for men, too. "For some reason it seems to be fine for girls to live at home, but not for boys. A lot of my guy friends have moved out but a considerable number of girls haven't. I think there are some quite old-fashioned attitudes around."
Thirty-five-year-old Doug Clement, meanwhile, has had to put his sex life pretty much on hold since moving in with his mum in 2009. "I've not had a girlfriend pretty much since I moved back and I think it's definitely connected," he says. "There were a couple of girls early on who weren't that impressed by the fact that I was in my thirties and living at home. And I only want to bring them home if I really like them, so it's tricky. Plus there's the fact that mum is highly liable to embarrass me: she tends to call them by the wrong name – though not on purpose."
Of course, there are upsides to being a boomeranger – there must be, otherwise so many people wouldn't be doing it. James Coveney, a 28-year-old police officer, has moved in with his mum in East Sussex, along with his girlfriend Michelle. He reckons it will enable them to save around £6,000 over six months, to put towards a deposit. Another benefit is the bond Michelle has been able to form with James's mum. "James does shift work, so he isn't there most of the time," says Michelle. "He is one of three boys, so his mum appreciates having another female around. The other day she said I'd become like a daughter to her."
Matthew Harbridge, a 31-year-old teacher, has had a similar experience: once his relationship with his mother comprised one weekly reluctant monosyllabic phone conversation. Since moving back home, this has transformed into regular trips out to eat together and a proper adult relationship. "I found living with her when I was growing up quite difficult," he says. "This is my second chance."
It's interesting that, whatever the circumstances, everyone interviewed for this feature had a firm moving out date set – usually within a year-and-a-half – both for their own sanity and to avoid imposing on their parents. For Luurtsema, it was around the six-month mark that she knew her time in Watford had to come to an end. There's a moment in the book that says it all: she had just finished a gig and was hanging out backstage with Richard Herring and Stephen Merchant when, absent-mindedly, she pulled from her bag a Tupperware box containing a packed lunch made by her mum. "A heavy silence broke out, with undertones of pity," she writes. Shortly after, she was gone.
"What's interesting," she concludes, "is that everyone has a different bond with their parents. You will have spent 30 years with these people, so you will have an incredibly complicated web of a relationship. All these tiny little resentments will have built up and things you have in common and things you don't. They are without doubt the most complicated flatmates you will ever have."
'Cuckoo in the Nest' by Nat Luurtsema is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £13.99
Susannah Hamilton, 22, City worker
"I lived away from home for three years when I was at university. After I finished I moved into a flat on Brick Lane in east London with a friend. I work in the City, so I thought it would be great, because I'd be able to walk to work.
"But the whole thing just felt like being a student again. The flat was disgusting. It was cheap and horrible and damp and dark. The kitchen was tiny and the bathroom hadn't been fixed for years and years. It was above an Arabic bookshop that played loud music until midnight every night, then, after that, a trail of drunken people would troop past until around three in the morning.
"I lasted a week before I asked to move back home. I cried on my parents' doorstep when I got back. It was such a relief to be somewhere welcoming, clean and friendly."
Jack Duncton, 28, local authority worker
"I was working for Hackney Council, but when the cuts hit I took redundancy in March last year. I was doing a Masters as well, so I was really worried about how I'd manage to work full-time, finish studying and pay the bills all at the same time.
"I've never been overly precious about my privacy, so it didn't feel like a drag. I'd say it was probably more annoying for my parents as I'm not the tidiest person and there have certainly been times when my mum would have my dinner ready and I'd be out for the night in the pub.
"It's not a problem having my girlfriend over, either. She gets on really well with my mum and dad and when we met she was living at her parents', so we were kind of used to it. It was just like it was her turn to come to mine.
"I started a new job a month ago and am now saving hard and paying off debts. But I won't be best pleased if I'm still here at 30. Aside from the fact I'd feel like I was imposing on my parents – my dad is trying to enjoy his retirement – I think I'd feel like my life was going backwards."
Gemma Swead, 27, actress
"I moved back in with my parents in their house in Chigwell [Essex] after I'd been working in LA for three years. I've now been there about a year and a half.
"There was no question about me going back. In fact, it was just kind of assumed I would. My old bedroom was just as I'd left it. I am very, very close to both parents. When I was in the States my dad would call me up every day.
"But I think that living together, we do drive each other a little insane. The fact that they want to know everything – not in a controlling way, they just want to be let in on what's going on – means they can get a little bit on top of me. If I'm down, they will want to know if everything is all right. And they repeat things just to make sure I've heard. So now, if one of them asks me the same question more than once I just pretend I didn't hear it.
"But at the same time I wouldn't change any of it. I like that that's who they are. Right now I am totally focused on my career. I know I wouldn't be able to do what I'm trying to do without them."
Doug Clement, 35, golf caddy and entrepreneur
"I moved back in with my mum in 2009. It was a simple business decision because I had the crazy idea to build a whisky distillery in Kingsbarns, where we live in Fife, Scotland, and I needed to save money.
"I really don't care what people think about me being in my mid-thirties and living at home. I'm not ashamed. My mum has a great house and really spoils me in terms of washing, cleaning and cooking. She even takes calls and does a bit of banking for the business.
"The downside is obviously a lack of privacy. You can't bring girls home or walk around naked and you have to be a little bit tidier. She also nags me a bit about my drinking whisky every night. But I have to: it's all in the name of market research, all part of the job."
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