Until relatively recently, the middle class in most prosperous countries did not need to act as an economic shock absorber for such a prolonged period in the lives of their adult children. Their households might expand to take in a wayward divorcee or support a child who had taken a non-paying internship, but the norm for most white-collar parents was to send young people out into the world and look on in satisfaction as they took their places in the corporate world or the professions, found their life mates, and established their own nests.
What is newsworthy about current trends is less the return of the unfortunate to the parental fold but the growth in the numbers of young adults in their late twenties and thirties who have never been independent in the first place. Why, in the world's most affluent societies, are young (and not so young) adults unable to stand on their own two feet? And what kind of fallout is this "failure to launch" producing?
The media around the world picked up on these issues early in the 1990s, when a raft of headlines lamented the emergence of a generation of slackers. In Japan, the cover stories pointed at the young and called them out as "parasite singles," kids who mooched off their parents and refused to accept the strictures of adulthood. From the viewpoint of people like Kumi and her late husband, who stuck their noses to the workplace grindstone and the child-rearing treadmill, it appeared that Japanese youth were somehow defective. They seemed happy to accept part-time jobs and live at home, where their parents picked up the tab for daily expenses, freeing them to go out and party. In a country with famously rigid norms of appropriate behavior, the debut of this slacker generation was a social calamity capable of stopping the presses and flooding the TV talk shows. How could such a serious problem have festered beneath their notice? How had the orderly transition from youth to adulthood suddenly run off the rails?
Americans are generally more tolerant of social change, but here, too, the broadcast media and the daily newspapers began to fill with articles about boys in their mid-twenties sitting in darkened basements, whiling away their time on video games rather than buckling down to pursue adult goals. Psychiatrists diagnosed the problem as a kind of retreat from reality and hinted that indulgent parents were suffering from some kind of " '60s infection." Baby boomers, caricatured as being unable to say no, were accused of alternately cocooning their kids and indulging themselves. "Helicopter parents," who hovered over their progeny, following them off to college to help choose their courses, tending to their every need, were said to lack the backbone to let their children grow up by learning from their failures. If everything has to be perfect, boomers were admonished, your kids are going to be basket cases when they actually try to stand on their own two feet. No wonder Jack and Jill were coming home to live out their twenties: their parents were ready to wrap them in swaddling clothes all over again. Pathetic!
Structural Barriers to Independence
These complaints were largely off the mark. For the most part, young people the world over are still keen on establishing their independence. Twenty-six-year-olds who enjoy the comforts of home still look forward to the day they establish their own hearth. Yet, there are many reasons why that deadline is receding to more distant horizons. The contours of the household are stretching — creating accordion families — because there are few other choices, particularly in societies with weak welfare states (like Japan, Spain, or Italy) and because the advantages to delayed departure are significant compared to launching an independent life with insufficient resources in societies like our own.
Globalization has insured that the economic conditions that underwrote the earlier, more traditional, road to adulthood no longer hold. International competition is greater than it once was, and many countries, fearful of losing markets for their goods and services, are responding by restructuring the labor market to cut the wage bill. Countries that regulated jobs to insure they were full-time, well-paid, and protected from layoffs, now permit part-time, poorly-paid jobs and let employers fire without restriction. That may serve the interests of firms — a debatable low-road strategy — but it has destroyed the options for millions of new entrants to the labor market throughout the advanced post-industrial societies. Japanese workers who once looked forward to lifetime employment with a single firm have gone the way of the dinosaur. American workers have seen the emergence of contingent workers (part-time, part-year, and short-term contracts), downsizing, offshoring, and a host of other responses to globalization that have exposed the American workforce to wage stagnation and insecurity. European labor is arguably facing a very rocky future as the global consequences of the current financial crisis weaken the EU economies and threaten the social protections that made them the envy of the developed world.
Eventually, these conditions will envelop the entire workforce. For the time being, though, they are most evident in the lives of the least powerful: new entrants to the labor market, immigrants, and low-skilled workers. The Accordion Family dwells on the first of these groups, the generation trying to find a foothold in a rapidly changing economy, who must contend with the ill winds blowing through labor markets, which cannot absorb them as they once did, and housing prices that — foreclosure epidemics notwithstanding — are making it hard for this generation to stake a claim to residential independence.
The new entrants fall back into the family home because — unless they are willing to take a significant cut in their standard of living, the last resort these days — they have no other way to manage the life to which they have become accustomed.
From The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition by Katherine Newman. Copyright 2012. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.