More graduates opt to live with mom and dad

For Heather McCarthy, telling her parents where she is all the time is the price she is willing to pay for financial stability.

Living at home has its drawbacks, admits the recent college graduate, but they are worth it to ensure a more secure future.

"I don't want to put myself in debt until I absolutely have to," explains the Seekonk, Mass., resident.

Not since Dorothy wanted out of Oz has there been such a chorus of "There's no place like home" coming from America's young people. Thanks to a tight job market, the high cost of housing, and rising student debt, the generation that grew up on "Friends" is showing its practical side by choosing an option that might have been considered uncool little more than a decade ago.

"In the last five years, it's become much more noticeable than it had prior to that," says Patrick Lennahan, director of the career center at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. "I don't see that there's any stigma attached to [living at home] at all anymore," says Mr. Lennahan, a 20-year veteran who now routinely asks students if the job they are looking for needs to be close to home.

Though many students only stay for a few months, others linger at home even after they are on their feet financially. They are attracted by a room of their own, disposable income, and eager-to-help baby-boomer parents who are welcoming their "boomerangers" - as they are being called - back to the nest.

The ebb and flow of the economy is often what determines whether grads head for an address they are familiar with, observers say, noting similar patterns in past depressions and downturns. "It's completely cyclical. It's completely dependent on the economy," says Robert Billingham, a family-studies professor at Indiana University.

Growing numbers

Polls like one conducted on website last month confirm that it is on the minds of college students, with 62 percent of 1,500 respondents saying they planned to live with their parents after graduation for a month up to a year. The huge ranks of Generation Y are expected to bump the numbers up more, according to American Demographics magazine.

Already a significant number of young people live at home. In 2000, half of all single men and women ages 18 to 24 - about 13.1 million - had mom and dad as roommates, according to census figures. Push the range up to 34, and about 16.3 million single young adults were living at home - about 25 percent of the total young adult population.

Factor in those who are married, and the numbers are slightly higher - 17.8 million. In 1970, about 12.5 million 18- to 34-year-olds lived at home.

One noticeable change in recent times - besides the fact that people are getting married later - is that many parents are more open to having their children at home. Unlike previous generations, baby boomers are less willing to let their kids struggle with rites of passage that include sparse furniture and instant noodles. They tend to prioritize being friends with their adult children and helping them find solutions.

Patricia McCarthy in Seekonk has welcomed all three of her daughters home, including Heather, the youngest, who moved home while still attending nearby Roger Williams.

"You want to make sure your kids can continue in the lifestyle you started for them," she says, talking about the amenities that her generation was able to provide - like travel - thanks to a dual income home.

She and her husband have not charged Heather rent, and they pay for her car insurance and cellphone. But she says they may soon hand over the cellphone bill to their daughter, who is working as a waitress while she looks for a full-time job.

Career counselor Lennahan, who has also had grown children live at home, puts offering a room in the same category as helping with a car down payment or other financial support. "You're in a position to help ... and they appreciate it," he says.

And it's not just parents who are coming to the aid of struggling graduates. Rachel Aceves, who graduated from a state university in California in 1999, moved in with her aunt in Chicago when she couldn't put a dent in credit-card and student-loan debt. As of June 1, the debt was gone.

"I cried when I sent that check off. I was so happy. And I could not have done it without living with [my aunt]," she says.

Like others who live with relatives, she says there are disadvantages - in her case, not being in a position to decorate or entertain. "It's not the coolest thing to not live with someone your own age," she says, despite the strong relationship she has developed with her aunt.

Curfews, bringing home dates

Adjusting to the new situation can be difficult on both the homeowners and their new tenants, who have to navigate delicate subjects like curfews and bringing home dates. Reactions range from intense fighting to a mutual understanding not found during the teenage years.

Along the way, parents often charge rent - sometimes a nominal sum meant to remind both parties that things are different than they were before college.

"Families in general are very good about responding to the needs of their members," says Professor Billingham, who has also played host to a grown son. "But I think everybody involved would rather have their kids live in a house two blocks down than in the basement. When you're living together, all the boundaries get really blurred."

That's something Liz Miller learned the hard way. Her vision of life after Mount Holyoke College included a big salary and a hip place to live. Instead, when she graduated from the school in South Hadley, Mass., in 1993, she had to learn to adjust to being at home with parents again.

"Once you get over the pushing and pulling and trying to figure out whose ground is whose," you can become friends, she says.

In hindsight, she says, living at home was hard. "You see sitcoms like 'Friends' and you think, 'That should be me!' "

But the time she spent at home gave her more time with her father, who was ill and later died. "It made me appreciate being connected to my family," she says.

Heather McCarthy is still making her peace with living at home. She appreciates her parents' care for her, but she sometimes feels 15 rather than 21.

It's not enough to outweigh her practical side, though. "I can deal with the way my parents are," she says. "It's worth it to me to save money."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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