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The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition
by Katherine S. Newman
Beacon, 288 pages, $25.95

Teenagers are losing interest in cars. According to the New York Times, not only are adolescents giving little thought to which car they are buying or driving, but they are losing interest in even acquiring a driver’s license. While half of sixteen-year-olds got their driver’s license in 1978, only 30 percent did so in 2008. “What is wrong with these kids?” I thought as I perused the explanations offered by some experts—including the notion that driving meant spending less time on the Internet.

One rationale can be found in the title of a popular parenting book, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?. Teenagers simply don’t rebel in the way they used to, because society has, by and large, accommodated them. They still fight with their parents, but the independence once provided by driving themselves—which could bring with it a certain sexual independence—is not something they need to fight for any more.

If teenagers no longer seem so eager to gain independence, many young adults have little desire to leave home. In her well-researched and compelling new book The Accordion Family, Johns Hopkins sociologist Katherine S. Newman notes that between 2000 and 2009 the number of American parents sharing a home with their adult children grew from 2.1 million to 3.4 million.

What she rightly calls an “astounding increase” can be explained in part by economic factors—a higher unemployment rate and higher costs of housing, for instance—but “accordion families,” families with multiple generations of adults living at home, are being formed for a host of reasons, including that parents have had fewer children and are more inclined to coddle the ones they have. The results of these family arrangements, Newman suggests, will have far-reaching economic, social, and demographic implications.

The average age of first marriage for women in the United States is now twenty-seven, and for men it’s twenty-nine. In much of Western Europe, birthrates have fallen below the so-called “replacement” rate of two children per family. And in the U.S., it dropped to a record low of 1.9 births per family in 2010. Newman suggests that a longer period of time at home is leading young adults to put off marriage and to have fewer children themselves.

Meanwhile, their parents, having had fewer children, are more heavily invested (both financially and emotionally) in each child and more reluctant to let their children go. In the early twentieth century, few parents worried about being “empty nesters” by the time their fourth or fifth child had left home.

Accordion families are a growing phenomenon in just about every first-world country. Natsuki Endo, a fifty-seven-year-old who lives with her husband and three children, aged twenty-six, twenty-eight, and thirty, complains that young people “do not take their lives seriously.” Her oldest has a job and her middle child is a temp, but her youngest is what the Japanese call a “freeter,” someone who is not employed or who is employed in some kind of irregular or low-skilled work.

Natsuki and her cohort blame themselves for this state of affairs. “Just as Depression-era Americans wanted their baby-boomer children to have it better,” Newman notes, “postwar Japanese parents who saw hardship in early childhood and graduated into the boom years of the 1960s also wanted to give their kids an advantage.” But now they fear they have over-indulged the next generation. “They worry they may have created a monster they cannot tame: kids who do not know how to be independent and lack the desire to mature into full adulthood.”

The situation among Italians, particularly southern Italians, is similar to that of the Japanese, only without guilt. Italian parents actually “bribe” their children to remain at home, according to research cited by Newman. These parents benefit from their children’s companionship and other services and “report that they are happier when their adult children live with them.”

Indeed, as all postindustrial countries started seeing declining fertility rates (because children were no longer seen as economic assets), their parents probably coddled them more. As Newman writes, “If children are ‘priceless,’ it may be more acceptable for them to deviate from old-fashioned and rigid norms that used to govern the march to adulthood.”

The emergence of the accordion family, writes Newman, is not a “neutral fact, a benign adaptation to the ebb and flow of social change.” Rather, these units are “symptomatic of, and causally connected to, basic demographic features of society that have profound consequences for the economic health of the United States and other advanced countries.”

She notes that “some of the most serious social tensions erupting across the developed world—immigration, public spending, and deficits, for example . . . are emerging at the same time and for some of the same reasons that we see accordion families sprouting.”

Accordion families change societies as well as families. Young adults living at home are less likely to find a marriage partner and start a life on their own, which in turn makes it less likely that they will have children. In Italy, for example, “family formation has slowed to a crawl, leading to low fertility rates in a society once known for its bambini.”

Newman blames “globalization” for high unemployment and wage stagnation, perhaps rightly so in some cases. But then she turns her attention to welfare systems. The stronger the system, she says, the less likely families will be forced to pool resources and live together. Hence, in the Nordic countries, children move out for college and rarely come back.

She suggests that making the younger generation so independent of their parents financially through heavy government subsidies may create fewer cross-generational ties, but otherwise she doesn’t worry about it much. Indeed, she seems to be suggesting that countries might want to adopt more generous welfare policies to get kids out of the house.

Alas, she does not consider the idea that the generous European welfare policies are exactly what put the younger generation in this difficult situation to begin with. The lack of flexibility in the job market—including heavy regulations on the type of staff that employers can hire and the number of hours or the days of the week they can work—has not helped. Meanwhile, the ludicrous pension benefits guaranteed to the older generation mean crippling tax rates that often make employment seem barely worth it.

Money and government regulation, though, are not the only elements keeping young people out of work. They themselves are also responsible. As Newman writes, “In places and periods in which high value is placed on autonomy, young people might be willing to take a significant drop in their standard of living or the quality of jobs they can expect to land in order to pursue or preserve their independence.” But at least one European study suggests that only 12 to 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would be willing to accept “any job” if they were unemployed.

So where does this leave Americans? Poor and working-class families have long pooled resources to save on rent and other expenses. But for the middle class, it is relatively novel. As with boomers in other parts of the world, Americans have built their entire lives around their children and can hardly imagine life without them. And the fact that the two generations (Millennials and their parents) share many of the same cultural sensibilities has made the arrangement easier.

But Newman notes an interesting peculiarity in the American approach to this problem: Americans require of their children what Newman calls “forward motion.” “If there is a positive purpose that justifies delayed adulthood,” such as continuing one’s education or saving up for a home or working at a low-paying internship in order to further one’s career, American parents “are all for it.”

Without that kind of purpose, “the underlying cultural affection for the work ethic kicks in and creates a gnawing anxiety that our children are taking advantage of parental largesse.” Some of the parents Newman interviews ask their children to contribute a nominal amount to household expenses. Others have a cutoff date by which a child should be financially independent.

The recession has surely not been kind to the young adults who have come of age in the past several years. It has forced many of them into unemployment lines and plenty of others to take jobs for which they are overqualified and underpaid. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal. suggesting that high levels of student-loan debt were forcing young adults to put off marriage and children indicates that the economic consequences of the recession are really only the tip of the iceberg.

All that being said, many of these young people could make it on their own were they willing to make a few sacrifices. The examples Newman cites of students living at home to have more-meaningful career experiences—or simply because they have no reason not to—suggest that independence is just not valued very highly by this generation. Maybe their televisions wouldn’t be as nice and they’d eat more ramen noodles and less of Mom’s cooking. Or they might have to enter a laundromat for the first time. These are the kinds of challenges that used to characterize young people’s early years away from home.

Instead, as Newman writes, they “fall back into the family home because—unless they are willing to take a significant cut in their standard of living, the last resort these days—they have no other way to manage the life to which they have become accustomed.”

And maybe that is simply the calculus. If parents no longer meddle in the lives of their twenty-somethings but are happy to meet all of their material wants, what incentive do young adults have to leave the nest? Indeed, some might wonder what’s wrong with this new family togetherness. But even if it did not stunt the growth of new nuclear families, there is reason to suggest that this kind of delayed independence is not good for what another generation used to call “building character.”

Perhaps parents have failed to suggest that there is more to adulthood than good food, clean laundry, and the freedom to come and go as one pleases. Perhaps we have failed to emphasize to our kids that the responsibilities of adulthood, marriage, raising children, and making a go of it on your own are also rewarding. First, though, the kids should learn to drive.

Naomi Schaefer Riley writes frequently about religion for the Wall Street Journal.