As thousands of the boomerang generation in Ireland lament the move ‘back in’, Erica Bracken explores a different side of things…
You’ve heard about my type. I make headlines for the pitiful, destitute way I live. My woeful way of life is the topic of viral tweets, a by-product of a national crisis and provokes raised eyebrows. My abominable transgression? I’m nearly thirty, and I’m back living at home with my parents.
Of course, you’ve read the title of this piece so you already knew that. And, if you’re reading this at all, you’re probably doing so with an open mind (you don’t judge people for living at home, right?). Yet you at least likely acknowledge that in Ireland today there exists a stigma around living at home as an adult. While people won’t openly shame you, of course, the undertone is without a doubt that it’s a step backwards, a failure to function successfully as an adult.
And I feel this shame. I’m embarrassed when in a conversation I’m backed into a corner, and forced to admit I’m living at home. I straight away rush in to excuse my scandalous behaviour. I have a light-hearted line that I frequently reel off: “I moved home for three weeks two years ago, and I haven’t left since!” Cue laughter about the predicament I’ve found myself in as I frantically flood the awkward air with the ‘plus sides’ of living at home (“you know what, it’s actually not that bad…).
I’m also keenly aware that if dating had a rating system, LAHWYP would knock you down at least 3 points. And even sharing my thoughts and situation openly now, I feel a slight chagrin about being so vulnerable and honest. Despite my best arguments, will people still ultimately think less of me because of my dwelling status?
I’m part of the ‘boomerang generation’ of young adults who’ve moved out of the family home for a time and only to boomerang back. Then there are those who (potentially even more shamefully) never left in the first place. And as I’m unmarried there’s even a specific term for me and my particularly lamentable kind, ‘parasite singles.’ Ouch.
I won’t get too in-depth about the reasons why there’s an unprecedented number of people in their 20s and 30s living at home – the most recent figures from 2020 report that it’s almost 50% of people aged 26-29. In a nutshell, a combination of stagnant wages, expensive housing and rapidly rising rent means that Irish Millennials are the first generation with worse living standards than their parents, according to an ERSI study.
The same report affirms that the rate at which young people are buying their own homes has “collapsed”, down from 61% at age 30 for those born in the 1960s to just 32% for those born in the 1980s. Added to that, our generation is getting married later in life which further exacerbates our efforts to save enough to get a mortgage.
I can entirely relate to all those reasons, but still, I had no plans to move back to Cork after years of living in Dublin and had the pandemic not acted as a catalyst I likely never would have returned home. I’d fully bought into the socially accepted trajectory; moving from familial interdependence in rural Ireland to independent urban living. The next step was to buy my own place – I would just have to take on the chin rising rents and cohabiting with strangers until I could do so.
But I fled to my family home in the Cork countryside the very day that the first lockdown was announced, motivated by a strong desire not to spend the weeks ahead living and working in a small Dublin city centre apartment, that I shared with another person (who I didn’t know before I moved in).
I didn’t know how long I’d be at home, exactly, maybe three or four weeks, but the months rolled by, lockdowns still pervaded, and the office remained closed. I let go of my apartment lease because it just didn’t make sense for me to move back to Dublin, and two years later it still doesn’t.
Because I’m enjoying my life at home and while I could have moved back to Dublin or elsewhere by now I’ve chosen to stay living with my parents. In our situation, at least for now, it works.
With relative ease, my parents and I have settled into a routine. On weekdays, they leave the house early to go to work and I have the entire house to myself as I work from home (an introvert’s dream). When they return from work we catch up on the day, share household chores, go for walks, cook and eat together.
I’ve managed to navigate dating and socialising pretty smoothly and have the independence to retreat to another corner of the house when I need space, or hop in the car and leave entirely. The overall quality of my surroundings, in a spacious house in a scenic part of the Irish countryside, exceeds anything I would have been able to afford in Dublin.
This brings me to the financial benefits. While I contribute to the household bills it’s nowhere near what I would be paying if I was renting. For the first time in my life, I’ve been able to save a considerable amount of money. This cushion gave me the financial freedom to risk leaving my job last year to explore new avenues and start a freelance career. I’ve also converted my bedroom into a yoga studio from where I teach online classes on the side – try doing that from a shoe box room in Dublin.
But for me, the biggest benefit has been getting to know my parents as people, equals and friends, not just educators, rule makers and piggy banks. What I’ve realised is that adulthood is the very best time to live at home. It’s an opportunity to make the most of the finite time we have with the people we love most in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
But yet, it’s more widely acceptable to live separately from family, even if that means paying more money, living in less desirable neighbourhoods and cramped conditions, often with complete strangers.
Multigenerational living is far from a foreign concept. In many countries and cultures globally it’s still the accepted norm. Not only is there no stigma in certain cultures; it can be more taboo to move away.
Even as close as Italy the attitude is that it’s entirely natural to stay at home at least until you’re married. And even then, multiple generations living under one roof isn’t an embarrassing set-up – take the glamorous Missoni family whose Italian villa serves as a welcoming base for relatives across the generations of the fashion dynasty to come and go from.
Indeed in Ireland today there are plenty of examples of families who choose to live together or next door to each other, particularly rurally. And when you think about it, it just makes sense – the family unit exists to mutually benefit each other in the long term, not just from birth to adolescence.
As writer David Brooks observes in an essay for The Atlantic: “We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximise their talents and expand their options.” He was specifically speaking about pro-nuclear family policies and institutions in the US, but the embedded structures and attitudes that give rise to such inequality exist here too.
In our capitalist Western society, generally, the goal of parenting has become to raise a child who becomes entirely autonomous. We rate independence more highly than interdependence. The accepted formula for success is: marry young, work a 9-5 job, get a mortgage, and raise a family so they can go forth individually and repeat the pattern. Anything that veers outside this way of living is seen as a failure. Who made up these rules and why are we playing by them?
Perhaps, it’s that there’s more money to be made when we’re all individually renting or building our own homes, rather than living communally? And it’s likely linked to the fact that getting married and home ownership are still seen as critical life milestones.
But whatever the cultural underpinnings that are pushing us out the door never to return, we can agree that there’s a stigma attached to the ‘adult child’ who lives at home, and the further you edge outside your mid-20s the bigger a failure you are.
Of course, living with your family doesn’t always result in Von Trapp family levels of harmony and bliss. In fact, research shows that most adults who live at home with their parents would be happier not to. And I get that, not everyone’s relationships or living environments will facilitate a smooth transition home – I’m lucky in that regard.
But maybe part of the discontent felt by adults living at home is caused by the very taboo that surrounds it. It takes a bit of self-assurance to feel completely at ease with going against the tide and to let go of what others might think.
We culturally celebrate leaving home as a mark of independence, setting out into the world as young adults. But there’s a converse attitude to the act of coming home for a short period, or even longer, as a fully formed adult, ready to get to know your parents for who they really are, and them you, to support each other, as Brooks puts it, ‘from the shocks of life,’ to make the most of our time on this planet together.
You see, I’m not just saying that if you happen to find yourself living at home again due to situations outside your control that there can be a joyful outcome. My realisation is that returning home to live with family should not only be accepted but embraced, desired and even planned for.
Soon, I’m sure, the time will come when it makes sense that I move on again, but for now, I’m enjoying spending time with my parents, building foundational relationships with my niece and nephew who live nearby, and saving money while I’m at it. Perhaps society will (once again) see it for what it is, a natural expression of familial interconnection, rather than as a moral catastrophe.