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The long goodbye

Living with your adult children

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2014

If you are like many of the boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1965, you may have your adult children living at home with you.

While the trend for young adults to remain living at home is not totally new, it has parents wondering what's up and social researchers examining the trend. Just how common is this arrangement and how has it changed in the last few generations?

Statistics from 2011 tell us that 59 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 24 in Canada lived in the parental home. This trend saw a steady increase during the '80s and '90s, so even though it is not unusual, it is very different from when the baby boomers themselves were young adults.

For example, in 1981, only 42 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 24 were living with parents, and if we go back to 1971, only 22 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women were living with their parents at that age. So things certainly have changed. Sometimes parents send their kids off as adults only to find them moving back home later, often referred to as "boomerang kids."

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the trend of young adult children living in their parental home, including the rising costs of post-secondary education, greater numbers of young adults attaining post-secondary education, increased housing costs and changes in parent-child relationships. Within some cultures there is an expectation that adult children, especially men, will live at home until they marry.

The education of young adults has changed considerably since the 1970s and does account for a considerable influence on the trend of young adults living at home with their parents longer. Young adults today are much more likely to complete a post-secondary education than in generations past, especially if their parents received post-secondary education. Due to rising tuition rates, staying in the family home longer makes practical sense if a student is attending school in the same city in which their parents live. Without a significant source of income, it is unlikely that a full-time student could afford to live on their own, or they would be incurring significant student loan debt.

Housing costs have been rising more than income over a number of years, which has made renting one's own apartment or even a shared rental out of reach financially for some. Food, utilities and gas are other costs that have risen considerably.

Researchers have crunched the numbers when it comes to comparing the economic picture for young adults today versus when their parents were starting out. It has been reported that young adults today are 41 per cent worse off financially than young adults of 1976.

In terms of relationship changes, there are two factors at play. Baby boomers who are now parents were raised in the sixties and seventies when many young adults were rebelling against the established sources of power and authority including government, employers and their own parents. They were part of the sexual revolution, women's liberation movements, civil rights movements and significant advances in technology and science.

Their relationships with their parents were more traditional, with the expectation that when they turned 18 they would move out or move on. In 1981 almost 52 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 29 were part of couples compared to 30 per cent in 2011. Young adults today are more likely to delay long-term or marriage relationships and child-rearing, with the average age of mothers at the birth of their first child being around 30 years of age.

Today, many baby boomer parents have worked hard to establish close relationships with their children and aren't necessarily eager to have them leave home when they turn 18. However, by the time parents are reaching retirement age, they often look forward to shifting their priorities from family responsibilities to their own personal goals such as flexible or reduced work schedules, travel or more leisure time. Changing dynamics in family relationships can lead to conflicts regarding issues like paying rent, who sleeps over, food, housekeeping, etc., which can become stressful and, at its worst, create lifelong resentments.

There are parents, unfortunately, who are not so happy with their adult children living at home. In those cases, it is more likely that the parents feel that the adult child is taking advantage of the situation. The parents may believe that their adult child is not sufficiently goal-focused, meaning they don't have an eventual plan for moving out or the parents feel that their child is not adequately contributing to the household in meaningful ways.

So what can be done to make the living arrangements of adult children living at home go as smoothly as possible?

Family experts and parents who have been there suggest setting out some guidelines of understanding - the sooner the better. Useful guidelines might include things such as negotiating any agreements regarding shared costs such as food and toiletries. Writing down agreements and keeping track of financial exchanges is also key. Negotiate decisions regarding roles and responsibilities as a proactive way to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. Having a specific goal is helpful for both parties, for example, having a plan to move out when post-secondary education is completed. Parents with adult children living at home must find ways to adapt to the fact that their children are adults and no longer children.

If you are a boomer parent feeling like you are getting boomeranged by your adult child, take a step back and clearly define what is not working for you. Honour your family members by having a frank discussion about how you would like to work together toward a comfortable arrangement that works for everyone. Discovering a new kind of relationship with your adult child living at home can be very rewarding as you see them take on more responsibility for their own lives and support them in reaching their personal goals.

Laurie McPherson is a program specialist in mental health promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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