When Grown Kids Return Home

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One of the urban legends of our society is the supposedly growing trend of "boomerangs" — youngish adults who move back in with their parents. Nearly every news outlet including TIME has dug up some slob to represent this trend: a college grad couch potato who plays Grand Theft Auto all day, refusing to take a low-paying starter job or move out into the real world. Last week both USA Today and ABC's World News Tonight piled on the ridicule, thanks to yet another book on quarterlifers in a quagmire.

While the slobs they find might be real, the trend is a complete fiction. In fact, the undeniable trend is in the other direction — the number of adult children living with their parents has been going down, gradually, for 15 years. Here's a chart, based on U.S. Census data.

This leaves us wondering why this myth constantly gets recycled. Myths take on a life of their own when they express a deep fear. As long as we hang on to that fear, the myth will haunt us. In this case, we fear our children won't have anything like the nice life we have. Parents worry that their best efforts for their children might not be enough. Despite all those rides to soccer practice, and all those nights checking homework, and all that money spent on college, the real world is simply too competitive and too expensive for our child to make it. Home prices are so outrageously high in the big cities that it seems impossible the next generation will be able to afford one. Tuition is so steep that graduate school seems unlikely. Even the good jobs are going to India, where the kids are harder-working and even more desperate.

This won't completely alleviate the fear, but we took a look at what happened to the college grads from the Class of 1993. It was a peak year for boomerangs — one of the laziest years on record, if you want to think about it that way. A recently released report from the Department of Education analyzed how the Class of '93 fared, 10 years later.

They're doing just fine. Within 10 years, 80% had married. 75% owned their home. Only 4% were unemployed. And their college degree was a smart investment after all. According to the Census, they were earning 67% more than kids with only a high school degree.

Calling kids who come home "boomerangs" is mean-spirited. A boomerang is a weapon designed to be thrown out into the world, and if it doesn't hit any target, it comes back to its owner. Is this the right metaphor for our young people? We've actually designed them to either go out and destroy things or return to us in failure?

Think of them as kites instead. It's not so easy to get a kite to fly. They crash back to ground a few times before getting up there. Then they soar.

Certainly, there are some slobs out there. But even the most industrious children might move home if they're saddled with $20,000 in student loans, or if they lose a job or have their heart broken or fall ill. We shouldn't fear that this makes them a failure, or worry that we've failed them.

We like to imagine that if you get your children to college, their lives are set. Just get them through those four years with a diploma and your job is done. But maybe we should consider something like a six-year plan. After four years at college, encourage them to come home for two years to work off the student loan debt. Then they can pick a job they really want, and be out of your hair.

If this plan seems, well, too lax, then take heart in knowing we're still beating the rest of the world. If they gave Olympic medals for shoving kids out the door the fastest, we'd still be on the podium. In countries like Japan and Italy and Spain, about 70% of children aged 25 to 34 still live at home. Here it's only 11%. Cue the national anthem.