For parents who have been enjoying the freedom of living child free, now comes research to spoil it all.
The bedrooms have been redecorated in grown up colours, the 25 year old soft toys chucked out, the washing machine is blissfully underused and, thanks to the apparent current raging addictions of baby boomers, a holiday or two cruising in the Med, the Antarctic, anywhere that avoids dry land have been booked. And then they’re back.
According to a recent study by the London School of Economics (LSE), adult children who return to the family home after a period away often at university cause a significant decline in their parents’ quality of life and wellbeing.
The first study of its kind to measure the impact of the “boomerang generation” looked at 17 countries including France Germany and Italy. Dr Marco Tosi and Prof Emily Grundy applied “quality of life” measures that included feelings of control, autonomy, pleasure and self realisation in everyday life”.
When a child returns home, researchers found the score went down by an average of 0.8 points, an effect on quality of life similar to developing an age related disability such as mobility difficulties. Protestant countries showed a greater decline than Catholic ones, presumably because these nations are more accustomed to living in multigenerational, extended families.
“When children leave the parental home, marital relationships improve and parents find a new equilibrium,” says Tosi. “They enjoy this stage in life, finding new hobbies and activities. When adult children move back, it is a violation of that equilibrium.”
When a grown up child does return, often reverting to tricky adolescence, there is something comfortingly familiar about doors slamming, noise accelerating and wellbeing sliding down the scale, it’s called parenting. But this time round, it can be particularly gruelling.
It’s not easy for a twenty something whose aspirations are battered by ridiculous housing costs, student debt and low wages to have to witness the daily spectacle of baby boomers bent on rediscovering their 60s mojo with late nights and long lie ins, all the while being hard of hearing, digitally illiterate and short on memory.
Repetition and constant interrogation about the strangeness of modern life are the price the returner must pay. “Did you say you’d be back for supper?” ;“Six times.” “What’s that thing that works the TV?”, “The remote control.”
And the rules of engagement are far from clear given that nowadays it’s more likely to be the baby boomer who is rolling a spliff and starting on a second bottle before the end of The Archers.
Last week, a series of notes from parents admonishing children and teenagers was published. “Every time you don’t eat your sandwich, a unicorn dies. Love Dad,” read one lunchbox note. In a boomerang household, it’s more likely the child will leave an admonishing Post It stuck to an empty case of wine, such as drink kill!
Around one in four young adults now live with their parents in the UK, the highest number since records on the trend began in 1996. In the 60s, it was the newly marrieds who returned to live with the in-laws. The UK wasn’t part of the LSE study, but Tosi says refilling the empty nest is likely to have the same impact. And we have history.
In the 18th century, young men would leave home in their teens to serve as apprentices and young women would fly the nest into domestic service, according to the sociologist Wally Seccombe’s history of working-class life, Weathering the Storm. But by the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution had led to mass “in-migration” to cities. “Home ownership was out of the question for the vast majority,” writes Seccombe. Families huddled together, subs and took in lodgers.
In 1851, in Preston, housing costs and low wages contributed to eight out of 10 males aged 15 to 19 living at home. It could take a woman, also a wage earner, up to three days to do the weekly wash by hand. Today, a returning adult child may find that the newly liberated woman of the house has resigned from all domestic duties in the name of self-realisation. The nest is no longer what it was.
That said, one vital element is missing from the LSE study, how long does the return of he boomerang child last? A decade and he or she risks turning into a carer, while a year or two has its pluses, someone to feed the cat while Mum and Dad are paddling up the Amazon or, if finances are depleted by more mouths to feed again, down the Ouse.
There are also surprising trade offs. Research on the brain by two American psychologists, Mara Mather and Susan Turk Charles, involved tests on people up to the age of 80. Results indicated that as we get older our fight or flight dictating amygdala reacts less to negative information. We tend to see the good rather than the bad, not least because time is precious. “In younger people, the negative response is more at the ready,” says Charles.
So in what appears to be an age of perpetual anxiety for adult offspring who are perhaps temporarily suspending the quest for independence, to go back home is not just about cheap living (and potential continued warfare if more than one sibling also rejoins the nest). Mum and Dad may find their equilibrium, newfound hobbies and partnership wrecked, but there are compensations in making room for a broke son or daughter. Like all good enough parents, in tough times they can make things seem not quite as bad as they might otherwise have. Even while queueing for the shower.