In some ways, Ryan, 30, is the prototypical slow-motion boomerang adult. “I was living comfortably and within my means, but I had a beautiful studio apartment in Baltimore,” he explained to me. “I had my life, had my job, really had everything kind of going and working really well.” Until the pandemic. Ryan’s job in higher education felt especially vulnerable, and he didn’t know how he’d make rent if he were laid off or furloughed. His apartment building became a locus of anxiety: “I was worried about living in a high-rise apartment with a lot of people, and kind of every day doing the math: There are at least 300 units in my building. That means some of us already have it.” He started reconsidering his mother’s long-standing offer, “to come back for any reason or no reason at all.” His deliberations ended when “I woke up and there was a mouse in my apartment on the 14th floor. I was like, This is it, a sign I should go.”
Reclaiming his old bedroom in Bel Air, Maryland, in May allowed Ryan to exhale a little from the more immediate pressures of finances: He was able to pay off his car and clear his credit card. Still, he’s not immune to loneliness: “Living in the city, I would see friends everywhere. Out here in the suburbs, none of my friends are still here. That is a little difficult, being an adult … and not having anyone your own age around you.” The choice to move back with family, even if that move is simply across a city or county line, can create a broader, more seismic shift in how older millennials see themselves — and how we fit into conventional models of adulthood.
For George, 33, who is planning on leaving North London to move in with family in Devon, England, because she fears an impending job loss, the tumult caused by COVID-19 is an enraging echo of the desperation she knew back in 2009, when she graduated into a global recession: “My lecturers literally wished me ‘luck’ in the world. Those years flew past and I felt left behind,” she recalls. “I felt like the world was against me and why wasn't I further ahead in my career [and] salary, but every single person I knew was going through it.” This gnawing dread of being left behind, again, after she’s worked to build a career and an independent life, has her reassessing the standard benchmarks of adulthood, not only for herself, but generationally: “I feel like as millennials we’ve struggled with the identity of ‘adulthood’ more than most. We've become more resilient and versatile because we've always had to be.”
George and Ryan aren’t the only young people making the decision to move back in with their parents. An analysis of monthly US Census data by the Pew Research Center reveals that a majority of young adults (ages 18 to 29) are now living with their parents — surpassing a record set during the Great Depression. These numbers have only increased as lockdown has ground on: The Pew poll says that 47% of young adults were living with at least one parent in February; that number climbed to 52% in July. According to Pew, the trend encompasses “all major racial and ethnic groups, men and women, and metropolitan and rural residents, as well as in all four main census regions.” And though our cultural conversations about adults moving back home focus on a “boomerang effect” of younger millennials and Generation Z — facing an uncertain economy and diminished prospects for employment — swooping back into newly emptied nests, the pandemic has sent those of us who are in a slightly older cohort (which a Zoomer daughter of a friend affectionately dubbed “grandma and grandpa millennials”) climbing back into nests that may be a bit cobwebbed. “I’ve [seen] a lot of young professionals that maybe haven’t bought their first homes yet pick up and move back home,” said Dea Dean, a marriage and family therapist. The chief reasons, she noted, “are to save money, or because of job losses,” though she’s also seen parents of young children who are spinning the plates of work, schooling, and all-around childcare seek helping hands from extended family.
I moved back in with my parents in April. As the pandemic spread, my world shrank. I saw the industries that sustained me start to erode, and I worried for my long-term financial standing. The coziness and solitude of my apartment curdled into a stale-aired echo chamber that only boomed with bad news. Then there was the fear for my parents, well into their seventies. My mother, a consummate Red Hat lady, who knew all the cashiers and pharmacists at her local grocery store by name, would need help learning the intricacies of Instacart and would need some way of getting her medicine as she received increasingly dire warnings to stay at home.
The thought of moving in with her began to emerge like watercolors slowly taking shape on paper — then I’d smudge it away: At 38 years old, I was too old for that; wouldn’t it seem sad? Moving home was for kids just out of college, who needed help as they launched into their own lives. I had my own life. Then, one afternoon, as I prepared yet another solitary meal, the news in the background announcing another milestone in deaths, my heart started jackhammering. I flattened my hands on my countertop, my head ringing with the sound of my pulse. The air cinched out of my throat. A panic attack. A clear sign I couldn’t keep on keeping on alone. I called my mother. I asked if I could come home.
Walking my dog through their suburban neighborhood, full of well-manicured lawns and signs announcing a child’s graduation, often feels like strolling through the portal of a life that I, as a single woman who will be contracting and freelancing for the foreseeable future (which still makes me more fortunate than many other people), will likely never have — a realization that brings with it a small yet tender ache, not so much about that kind of life itself, but what it represents. Christie Kederian, a psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, said that, as older millennials have been moving back with their families, “the previous notion of aiming to own a home by 30 and be independent has been replaced with ‘survival mode.’” Though “survival mode” casts a grim image, Kederian suggests that there’s a valuable opportunity: “Our westernized society puts independence on a pedestal … this new trend [can] teach millennials that it's OK to ask for help, to let go of the pressure to have your life look better on Instagram than it feels in real life, and to rid themselves of the microwave mentality that everything you want to happen in your life, all the dreams you want to achieve, have to happen before you’re 40.”
“I feel like as millennials we’ve struggled with the identity of ‘adulthood’ more than most. We've become more resilient and versatile because we've always had to be.”
Growing up with a mother from the Middle East helped Mina, 40, adjust to living with her mother and stepfather after hopscotching throughout the country as she advanced her education. The academic job market was brutal even before the pandemic: Mina “felt like my dreams imploded.” She moved in with her mom and stepfather, which had its own, unexpected boons: funneling the money she’d have spent on rent to travel, building a freelance business, and helping her parents recover from surgeries. “My mother is Middle Eastern,” she explains. “My understanding is that culture, as a whole, doesn’t prioritize living on your own after 18 in the way America does. I believe that Western, and particularly American, ideas of what constitutes ‘adulthood’ are far too narrow and only helpful to the capitalist machine. Build shame around living at home to encourage people to take whatever job they can find and work themselves to the bone.”
Being at home now is also crucial to Mina’s long-term health — she’s immunocompromised and having the immediate support and stability of family helps her avoid exposure and risk. Of course, like any living situation, there are struggles: “My mother and I have a complicated relationship,” she says. “Still, I am better able to withstand her emotions than I was in childhood and adolescence: to set boundaries, to provide self-care, to disengage when she’s angry or upset.”
But even the tightest familial relationships can hold their share of fault lines, and experts say the best way of keeping the earth steady is establishing clear, direct boundaries. “Many of my millennial clients who move back home feel they are emotionally regressing,” said Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It's very common for adults to feel like kids again when interacting with their parents. So, everyone needs to learn to renegotiate house rules for adults, things like a curfew or having guests over. Some adults think it's a no-brainer that their parents would not have a right to dictate these things. But some parents think it's a given, ‘my house, my rules.’” Dean, the family therapist, advises her clients to “lead with the things you are worried about, lead with your fears, lead with vulnerability” when setting up their boundaries. These worries can range from mixed messages in child-rearing, different standards for social distancing, and, yes, arguments about the news. “When we introduce our boundaries as desires rather than demands, we tend to go a lot further with one another,” she said.
Sometimes, the best one can do is tiptoe around those fault lines. Bob, 38, is a filmmaker from Baltimore who moved in with his widowed mother to help her out, but some of their political differences have proven insurmountable: “I’ve navigated it by either not talking about it or giving up and ending the conversations prematurely,” he said. Millennials and Gen Z by and large have differences from boomers: A Pew poll found significant deviations in their attitudes about everything from climate change to the role of government in solving problems — and these tensions can grow more formidable as families find themselves in cramped quarters for long periods. They can also exacerbate the natural frustrations of cohabiting after spending years on your own. Though Bob is glad that his mom is safe, he still mourns the privacy he enjoyed in the pre-pandemic days. “I like my alone time; I like my door closed. I lost all that here.” Moving in with family is often motivated by practical concerns, but, for many boomerang adults, it also represents an existential shift.
Pre-pandemic, Charlotte, 32, was already working toward her life dreams, living in Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. With TV shows largely on pause, she found herself unemployed and after six long months living alone, she elected to move in with her sister and her family in Kansas City. “It's weird, obviously, to move into a space that isn't yours, especially as an adult,” she said. She’s enjoying the comforts of living in a full house — family dinners and companionship — particularly as she considers what her career might look like in the near future: “If being a television writer is no longer a viable career — I have to completely reevaluate my entire life. After 10 years of being support staff on television shows.” She credits those years in an unconventional industry with giving her a more nuanced perspective on adulthood and maturity: “I've sacrificed dating and a personal life for shows with too long hours and writing during any free time. So I don't have a career or a family — the hallmarks of an ‘adult.’ But I've kept myself and my dog alive for the last seven years. So I must be doing somewhat OK, right?”
"So I don't have a career or a family — the hallmarks of an ‘adult.’ But I've kept myself and my dog alive for the last seven years. So I must be doing somewhat OK, right?"
Nonetheless, she’s had to explain to certain friends and former coworkers that she’s not hoisting a white flag on her ambitions: The increase in virtual workspaces has enabled her to still look for work, while also sharing a space with people she loves. “If I needed to be in LA to find a job right now, I probably wouldn’t have left,” she said. Her close friends, at least, understand and support her. “Everything is so uncertain now … no sense in being depressed and alone if you don’t have to be.” Still, the stigma remains. Even a perfunctory Google search of “adults moving back home” will yield “People also ask” categories such as “Is it bad to move back in with your parents?” and “Is it shameful to move back in with your parents?” When I greeted one of my parents’ neighbors, a man I’ve known since I was a teenager, he asked me, his voice arch with a flinty mix of condescension and contempt, “you planning on staying here, you know, for a while?”
The ways we frame our choices can help insulate us from that stigma. Danielle Moye, a licensed marriage and family therapist, hasn’t just observed the trend in her clients — she also moved back in with her family shortly before the pandemic escalated, to help heal from a divorce. She believes in emphasizing the practical, proactive aspects of the decision to interrogate old notions that, as a boomerang adult, we’re helpless, or lazy, or pathetic: “There are so many ways to look at it, and I see it not only as an opportunity to save and refocus, but also as an opportunity to kind of go back home and focus on those relationships that maybe could use more work.” She’s used the time at home to process and assess where she’s been in her life, how familial histories and attitudes have shaped her, and which directions she’d like to move in in the future: “I’m so used to picking up things and keeping the momentum going without checking to see if [I was] actually OK. That’s the best part, coming back home to myself, in a number of ways — actually coming back home, and coming back home to myself emotionally.”
For Xian, a New York–based disability advocate and entrepreneur in her thirties, sharing space with her family allowed her to connect more fully with her father, who has prided himself on maintaining a rigorous work schedule even in his advanced years: “The pandemic presented this incredible sort of healing thing where we got to be 24-hour parent and child,” she explains. “It’s obviously different because we are all adults now, but it was very precious time with him, for me.” Knowing that she could ensure her parents followed quarantine — she personally got her father to adopt teleworking and start using hand sanitizer — also helped ease Xian’s mind: “I felt I was protecting my parents more by being with them because then at least I knew if they were behaving or not,” she jokes. “I see it this way: One day, I will maybe have a family of my own and not have as much time for my parents as I do now.”
“One day,” these days, feels like the sunrise of some distant horizon. I’m learning to let go of the expectations I had for myself before I showed up on my mother’s front porch with a suitcase and a hope that this would all be temporary. I miss the silence of an empty house; I miss having a space that is unequivocally mine. My desires are smaller now: that I can keep everyone close to me safe and well; that I will not take my dinners alone, night after night. They may not be grand, but they must be enough. ●