A Place Of One’s Own

24 Jun

Do you remember hearing about people who kept an uncle in the attic?  Was that just my family?  The attic seemed to be where relatives who might not be entirely suited to living in society, were stashed.  You never hear these references any longer.  We could chalk that up to the demise of the cohabiting extended family, but I doubt it.  If there ever really were uncles up there, they’re long gone now.  The modern generation of uncles is more mainstreamed or perhaps people don’t have attics any longer.  The extended family does seem to still be cohabiting, but now it’s the adult children.  And they seem to not be in the attic or basement but be in their old room.

You’ve heard countless reports of adults in their 20s (or older!) living with their parents.  They don’t seem to be there to offer support to parents presumably in their senior years, but to live as they did as a teenager.  They live in the manner they’ve grown accustomed with; reliable climate control, plumbing, food, laundry, cable, wireless, and perhaps access to a car.  You’ve no doubt heard that unemployment is the cause of this phenomenon.  No doubt for some it is.  But there’s something else in play too, no?

Let’s think back, way back (cue flashback music and wiggly screen.)  There you are headed off to college.  You’ve got your new comforter, milk crate of albums, a hotpot and every stitch of clothing you own.  Maybe a parent drove you to campus.  If so they’re long gone by the time you start to unpack.  Those first few hours are filled with nervous meetings of roommates and suite-mates and a growing euphoria of having left home.  Yes, the university is nice.  Yes, the classes seem mildly interesting.  But YOWZA, you don’t have to live with your parents anymore!!!!  You go through the next four years jerry-rigging yourself into a major that will render you employable.

Ah the world of work and the demoralizing entry-level position.  You probably worked weekends, maybe even graveyard shift.  You’d stumble home to your apartment, careful not to wake your roommates sleeping on the couch.  You’d collapse in your bed, lucky to share an actual bedroom with just one other person.  Most nights you’d be too tired to boil up a generic hot dog or open a can of no-frill baked beans.  In the morning you’d wake up 10 minutes early to avoid the maddening crush of all your roommates fighting over the shower.  Our developmental milestones were measured in how many roommates we were able to discard.  Living alone was the ultimate brass ring.  I’m not so sure that’s the case any longer.

There is now more than one generation that has no familiarity with sharing a childhood bedroom let alone a bathroom.  Colleges and universities know this and have been churning out “singles” at an impressive rate.  There is also little romance now associated with being ‘poor.’  There have been too many post-Reagan decades for communes and ‘living off the land’ to hold any mystique for people under 40.  We all spend money in ways that would have floored our generic hot dog eating selves.  Bottles of water?  Cups of coffee for $5?  Electronics?  New cars?  It’s fair to say we considered making a long-distance call a luxury back then.

There are no doubt many young(er) people living with their (extraordinarily generous) parents who have simply had a bad run of luck.  They chose a path to a degree that they could afford.  They chose a course of study that should lead to employment.  They’re ready willing and able to share a garage apartment in the suburbs with three strangers.  But nothing has gelled for them.  They are cooking all the family meals, taking care of the home and generally making themselves an asset to their parents while they look for employment and housing 8 hours a day.

And then there’s everyone else.

There’s Brandon, whose parents paid his tuition entirely and set him on a debt-free course, only to have him drop in and out of the workplace.  He currently lives at his parents’ home while working on his web business, or saving up for a condo (home ownership is now a birthright by the way.)

Emma has college debt, some of it avoidable no doubt.  She eschewed starting at a community college and floundered a bit for it.  Her 4-year degree took 5 1/2 years, but she’s done!  Yes, $200K is a staggering amount of debt for anyone, but surely a dance major can find well-compensated work?

And then there’s dear sweet Madison.  She/he (who knows with a name like Madison!) worked her way through a school she could afford.  She applied for every grant, fellowship and scholarship and even got a free ride to graduate school.  Madison has a good job with a bright future.  She lives with her parents because it makes everyone happy.

Are unemployment rates high?  Of course.  Are students being trained in areas which have projected job growth?  Perhaps.  Has our culture changed radically in the past 20 years?  Absolutely.  That flashback you, bolting through the door of your parents’ home towards your own life is now quaint.  If you had been raised in the child-centric universe that exists today, you may have been less eager to jump into adulthood.  It would seem that the most important takeaway from the “more adult children are living with their parents” buzz is that it may very well not simply be the result of high unemployment.

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Posted by on June 24, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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