Bradley Cooper could win an Oscar for American Hustle, in which he plays an excitable boy-man whose immaturity is drawn in quick, neat strokes: He perms his own hair – and lives with his mother. “Richard!” she screams at him as he’s trying to be a serious FBI agent on the phone. “Are you eating in the bathroom again?”
It’s good for a laugh, just like Matthew McConaughey’s 35-year-old still sleeping on Superman sheets in his parents’ home in the alleged romantic comedy Failure to Launch (a movie you should only watch if the choice is the movie or a pit filled with flames). Henry James knew the adult child living at home was a source of pity when he wrote Washington Square more than a century ago. Not much has changed.
But what if we’re looking at it the wrong way? What if the kids still living at home aren’t parasites, and their parents aren’t hapless hosts, leaking cash and car keys? What if, in fact, everyone gets something nice out of the deal?
Rising college fees, a poor job landscape and exorbitant house prices all conspire to keep baby birds in the nest. It’s seen as a terrible failure that 36 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 31 still live at home, the highest figure in 40 years. But when Pew Research asked them how they felt about living in the basement, 78 per cent said they were happy chez mom and dad. Interestingly, their parents were happy too: The ones who had adult kids at home were just as satisfied as those who didn’t.
But what if they never learn to be independent? Never learn to fly on their own? Well, nothing says they can’t mature under their parents’ roof, through work or love or activism. They just need a good lock. And look what parents get in return: companionship, affection and an antidote to loneliness, which is the true killer these days.
If you happen to be mega-successful, living at home seems like a charming quirk rather than a sign that you’ll be found covered in bed sores at the bottom of a mountain of potato chip bags. Rafael Nadal still lives with his mom and dad, and no one’s ever accused him of being a slacker. Of course, he has his own wing and probably doesn’t get yelled at if he leaves tennis rackets lying around, but there is a disarming honesty when he says, “I haven’t found any place I’d rather live than with my parents.”
In Denmark, only 2 per cent of young adults still live at home, which makes the number in Canada seem shockingly high: 42 per cent of twentysomethings, up from 27 per cent in 1981. Even Canada pales in comparison to Slovakia, at 56 per cent, and, famously, Italy, where 61 per cent – a demographic known as bamboccioni (big babies) – still wake up in their parents’ house.
This may cause you to shake your head in dismay, but to me it’s kind of great. Imagine parents never having to call a computer technician again, because there’s one living in the basement (though you haven’t seen her in days). Imagine twentysomethings having a live-in therapist, gardener and barista. Before you talk about mooching, consider this: 89 per cent of the young adults at home in the Pew study contribute financially to the household. Perhaps it’s the Italian in me, but I can see why so many cultures in the world value the multigenerational living model over the Western preference for independence and isolation.
It worked for me. After my parents separated, my mother and I lived with my grandmother. It was partly due to economics, but also because my mother needed to come home at night to someone who loved her unequivocally and always had her back. My grandmother read tea leaves and told me how to skin a deer (a skill I have yet to employ, fortunately). When I came home from work late at night, in our dodgy part of town, she was waiting for me at the bus stop, a pair of scissors hidden in her girdle should she need to defend our honour.
Our three generations would gather to watch Dallas, marvelling at another multigenerational family living under one roof, and wondering that their wealth in oil, real estate and Scotch failed to solve even their most basic problems. At 21 I moved out, and missed my grandmother immensely. There was no one to wash light bulbs, or salvage gently used Kleenex.
Recently I told my children that they were welcome to live at home as long as they liked, and the tornado generated by their rolling eyeballs nearly knocked me flat. The future I pictured with endless Come Dine With Me episodes and games of Hedbanz, they saw more as a prison where the nag alarm was set to “constant.”
They’re young, though. One day they’ll be begging to come back. I’ve got just the spaghetti sauce for the job.