June 27, 2012

Relationships & Family

A Man’s Guide to Moving Back in with His Parents…While Maintaining at Least a Little Dignity

“I’m back……”

Continuing to live with your parents after you turn 18, or moving back in with them after graduating college…isn’t that the antithesis of manliness?

That’s certainly how the regular spate of “What’s the matter with the menz?” articles portray it. The fact that the number of 25-34-year-olds who are living with their parents has doubled since 1980 (it now sits at 22%), and that more men in that age group than women have moved back home (22% versus 18%), is often used as evidence that young men are willfully refusing to grow up these days, and have gladly traded their manly independence for a chance to play video games in mom and dad’s basement.

While there are definitely cases of 20 and 30-something men living at home in order to prolong their adolescence, to say all men in this situation are lazy moochers is to paint the picture with far too broad a brush. The reasons for the increase in the number of young men moving back in with their parents are much more nuanced and complex, and include both cultural and structural changes:

  • Higher education costs. Back when your Baby Boomer parents were in college, a semester of school cost just a few hundred dollars, and it was easy to graduate with little to no debt. But since 1980, college tuition has increased between 1 1/2 and 2 times the inflation rate each year. Today students can graduate $25-$100k in debt, double that if they go on to graduate school.
  • Dismal job market for young people. Since the 1970s, real income has declined for young people, and the job market has gotten more competitive. The current recession only made things worse. The first decade of the 21st century constituted one of the toughest job markets for young people in recent history. Today just 54% of adults between the ages of 18-24 are employed. The recession also hit the paychecks of young people more than any other age group.
  • Increased education requirements. Fifty or sixty years ago, a man could get a decent paying job with just a high school education. Today’s job market typically requires candidates to not only have a college degree, but often an advanced degree as well. Because schooling is now both more expensive and lengthier, it’s taking young people longer to become financially independent.
  • Increased housing costs. On average, your parents and grandparents probably spent only 1/3 of their income on housing. Today 1 in 4 Americans are spending more than half of their income putting a roof over their heads. With housing costs up and paychecks down, getting a place of their own has become much more difficult for those in their 20s.
  • Decreasing generational gap. The rift between Baby Boomers and their GI generation parents is the stuff of pop culture legend. Boomers and GI’s often had completely different tastes in music, dressing, and values. Boomers couldn’t wait to leave home, and their parents were glad to see them go. These days, many of the Millennial generation get along great with their parents and consider them friends. Parents and children listen to the same Jack Johnson songs and sit down to watch Boardwalk Empire together. And because many Boomer parents worked full-time when their kids were growing up, they aren’t sick of their offspring yet and like having more time to spend with them.

So suffice it to say the phenomena of young people moving back home is more complicated than “Young men today are lazy and unmotivated.” And as we mentioned in our series on the history of the bachelor, far from being the recent anomaly the media has made it out to be, living with your parents well into your 20s was the norm for young men for much of history. It was in fact the post-WWII period, with its flush economic prosperity and robust governmental housing and educational subsidies which allowed young men to strike out and settle down early, that was the real aberration. It should also be noted that multi-generational households have long been, and continue to be, the norm in many other countries and cultures; the peculiar American fixation with having your own homestead is in many ways a function of our frontier history.

Now all of this isn’t to say that it’s always a good idea to move back in with your parents and that you should feel comfortable living with them indefinitely. Or that living on your own isn’t a very worthy goal. Rather, it is to point out that stigmatizing a young man’s decision to move back home as always unmanly is misguided. Like many things in life, if you do it for the wrong reasons, and you do it immaturely, it’s unmanly, while if you do it for the right reasons, and in the right way, it can be, if not overtly manly, at least dignified. What are those right reasons and behaviors? Read on.

Friendly Advice on Moving Back in with Your Parents

Have a good reason for moving back in. This is numero uno in importance when figuring out if moving back in with your parents is the right decision for you. You should have a specific, sensible reason as to why you’re returning home (or haven’t yet left). Your reason shouldn’t be vague like “I need time to get my life back together.” How do you know when you’ve gotten your life back together so you can move out? Vague goals lead to vague results. Most American parents don’t mind housing their adult children so long as it’s furthering an important life goal for them. If you’re trying to save money so you can go to school, great! If you’re trying to save money so you can backpack through Europe, not great.

Don’t let standard of living trump autonomy. Another of the reasons sociologists give for young adults returning to the nest in greater numbers is that today’s young people value lifestyle over autonomy. It was the opposite for young adults in previous generations; while young Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were willing to slum it for a few years if it meant living independently from mom and dad, today’s young person seems more willing to sacrifice privacy, freedom, and autonomy if it means they can still buy new clothes, own expensive consumer electronics, and eat out instead of subsisting on ramen noodles.

But I believe becoming a man still means seeking autonomy over creature comforts. So related to the point above, this means your reason for moving back home shouldn’t be to use the money you save on rent to maintain the lifestyle you grew up with. That’s a recipe for thwarting your journey to becoming a man; having to live frugally, budget, and make sacrifices helps you grow up. If you’ve got money for video games and drinking at the bar, you have money to live on your own.

If you can get by with a very modest lifestyle on your own, then do it. Only move home if it allows you trade less autonomy in the short-term for more autonomy in the long term. Live as frugally as you’d have to if you were on your own, and put the money you save on housing costs towards things like education, health insurance, starting a business, and staying out of/mitigating debt. Especially that last one; some say living with your parents isn’t manly, well, going into debt isn’t manly either! Going deeper into debt for pride’s sake isn’t manly, it’s just dumb. I lived with my in-laws for three years in law school – the debt I incurred from tuition was large enough that it seemed foolish to add to it if other accommodations were available — and I’m not ashamed I did it. The arrangement wasn’t ideal, but it set me up for greater autonomy; besides my house, I’m now entirely debt-free.

Treat returning home as a privilege. In most states, as soon as you turn 18, your parents have no legal obligation to take care of you. Any support they give you after you’re 18 is a privilege and gift. Show some gratitude and humility and don’t act like you’re entitled to room and board. You’re not.

Treat your stay as temporary and have an exit plan. Before moving back in with your parents, establish a specific date when you’ll leave; you might even consider signing a contract with your parents to that effect. If you go in with an open-ended timeframe, you’ll never leave. Create a plan on how you’ll get the money and resources to move out by your established date, and share this plan with your parents.

Don’t fall into old habits. It’s easy to revert back to familiar family roles when you return to your childhood home. You’ll want to be taken care of, and mom and dad (especially mom) will want to take care of you. Nip those habits in the bud as soon as you move home. If you want to feel like a grown man while still living with your parents, you need to do as much as you can for yourself. Do your own laundry, buy your own food, clean your own room, and take care of your own problems. Your mom shouldn’t have to leave a post-it note on the counter to remind you of your dentist appointment. If you notice your parents trying to do stuff for you that you’re capable of doing yourself, kindly but firmly say: “I really appreciate your willingness to help me out on this, but I’d rather do it myself. I hope you understand.”

Redefine the relationship with parents from vertical to horizontal. One thing you can do to avoid falling into old habits with your folks is sitting down with them before moving in and having a “define the relationship” talk. For most of your life, your relationship with your parents has been vertical — they stood atop the family hierarchy, guiding, directing, and dictating how you lived your life.

Now that you’re an adult, your relationship to your parents needs to change to a horizontal one. Instead of engaging with your parents as a child, you need engage with them as fellow adults and on terms of mutual respect. Share your expectations and ask them what they expect from the new living arrangement and fight any urge to cry out “That’s not fair!” If what your parents expect is different from what you want, then you’ll have to find another living arrangement.

Once you’re back in with your folks, maintain that horizontal relationship by taking an active role in the household. Don’t expect your parents to take care of you, and do what you can to proactively contribute to your family. Speaking of which…

Contribute to the household. We’ve talked about it before. Men produce and boys consume. If you want to feel like a grown man, even while living with your folks, then actively contribute to your parents’ household instead of passively consuming their resources like a leech. Understand that moving back in with your parents will have a financial impact on them. Discuss with them how you plan on contributing to the household and mitigating some of the financial pressure.

If you can afford it, volunteer to pay at least a nominal rent. Not only will it help your parents offset the extra costs of having another person in the house, it will help instill some financial discipline in yourself. If your parents refuse the rent, you can still pay them a sum every month, so you get in the habit of doing so, and they can save the money to give to you when you move out to help you get on your feet.

Even if you can’t pay rent, there are lots of things you can do to contribute to the household: mow the lawn, clean the house, buy the groceries, cook dinner, run errands, etc. Take the initiative on this stuff. Don’t wait for your parents to ask you to do it. Oh, and you should still do those things even if you’re paying your parents rent, and you shouldn’t expect effusive praise. Think of yourself as a roommate in your parents’ home. Just as you’d share chores and food costs with your apartment roomies, you should share them with your parents.

Don’t take advantage of the situation. Even though your folks are also unofficially your landlords, the fact that you’re their kid, and not just an impersonal tenant, puts them in a tough position; if you don’t follow the agreed upon rules, they’ll be loathe to call the cops to evict you and they can’t ground you anymore. This leaves them with little enforcement power, so they’ll be relying on your sense of integrity when it comes to following through with what you said you’d do. Keeping your word is good practice for mature manliness.

Respect your parents’ views on conjugal visits. If you have a significant other in your life, respect your parents’ views on couples sleeping together before marriage and/or under their roof. You might think your parents’ are old-fashioned and being unreasonable by not allowing your lady friend to share bunk beds with you, but again, it’s their house and they can set any sort of conditions they want. If you don’t like them, you’ll have to get busy somewhere else, perhaps in the backseat of your car; a few of these vehicular groping sessions may be just the thing to motivate you to get your own place.

Keep your parents abreast of your schedule out of courtesy. You’re an adult now, so you’re under no obligation to let your parents know how you spend your time outside their home. But as a courtesy, let them know what your schedule looks like. It will help them plan out their week, and they’ll know where they can find you in case of an emergency. If you’re going to be out late, let them know so they don’t freak out when they hear someone rattling the front doorknob at 3 AM.

Think of yourself as a guest. If you’re not sure of what you should or shouldn’t do now that you’re living with your parents again, simply ask yourself: “What would a guest do?” Always ask permission to use and eat things that aren’t yours, and do what you can to make your presence interfere as little as possible with your parents’ regular routines.

Don’t live in limbo. Living with your parents may make you feel unsettled, leading you to put off getting your life together until it “really starts.” But life is going on right now, bud. Whatever you need to work on personally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, educationally…get to it. Your 20s are a terrible thing to waste.



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