This month American college seniors will collectively sit through more than 2,000 commencement addresses. Per tradition, speakers will paint bright pictures of the world the young will inherit, urging them to hang onto their love-of-learning, to think outside-the-box, and be brave in the face of all that will be strange and new.
As it turns out, however, while things may indeed be strange, not all things will be new. Despite 2013’s slightly rosier hiring forecast, the majority of this year’s fresh faces will not vault directly from dorm to career. And employment offers in hand or no, recent research indicates that a sizeable number of them will move right back in with Mom and Dad.
Ten years ago, when our older son headed off to college, my husband and I spoke with excitement of his “launch” -- and that of his younger brother, close behind. We expected our children would rocket off for adulthood or, at least like young birds, flap bravely away from the home nest, fashioning their own in a far-off tree.
Well, that was then. A new reality has landed in America, as hundreds of thousands of baccalaureate astronauts are aborting take-off and returning to earth. Mothers and fathers today speak not of rockets, but of “boomerangs” – shorthand for home-bound graduates. Meanwhile, their ballooning domiciles have been nicknamed “accordion households.”
When both my children were off in college and our nest became entirely empty, I found myself feeling terribly sad. It didn’t take me long, however, to feather it with new projects. Content in my new life stage, I even joked about selling the house so our kids wouldn’t have one to come back to.
It’s a good thing our home never made it to market. Undecided about grad school, our younger son joined the homebound stream of Bachelors after graduation. He came home to a quiet house, his older brother away in med school. Although he found freelance and volunteer work, by September, he was still not employed full-time. His father and I found nearly full-time employment in fretting about him.
While desperately missing his college friends, our Boomerang seemed philosophical about returning home, and began applying to MFA programs in between job-hunting. Treading on eggshells, I offered tidbits of resume advice, most of which he accepted with good grace. We embarked on a brief tour of graduate programs together, which was nowhere near as exciting as our tour of undergraduate schools had been four years earlier. Afterwards I realized that he was ambivalent about the prospect of further schooling; what he really wanted was to be back in the familiar and beloved world of his college campus. After landing a coveted position in a children’s art program, he grew increasingly uncertain about heading for grad school, but after months in his childhood bedroom, reduced to Skyping with former roommates, it became obvious he wanted to head out of here.
“This feels wrong,” he kept saying. Despite a salary insufficient for even a shared apartment, and despite seeing dozens of peers also re-inhabiting family nests, to him, this new order seemed out of whack, as it did to us.
Although I relished getting to know his newly mature self over the months, I have to admit that his returning here also bothered me, and long before it began to bother him. Having a grown child boomerang back home is out of whack -- like a merit badge ripped off your Scout uniform.
Humans navigate psychological terrain as well as geologic, and we need life’s milestones to locate ourselves. But what does the graduation marker mean, if we’re all back where we started?
Well, first of all, we aren’t really in quite the same spot; we, as well as our offspring, have become better educated -- and more savvy. I’ve come to believe we err in appropriating a child’s graduation as a parental rite of passage -- or for that matter, any other developmental marker. Twenty-odd years ago I was obsessed with Baby’s First Year timetables -- frantic when our first infant failed to roll over on schedule – and later, ecstatic, when he walked two months “early” -- as though I had been graded on his development! By the time my Boomerang was born, my perspective had lengthened; the “milestones” spaces in his baby book are mostly blank. I was a better mom when I let them simply happen.
And then out son’s graduation happened – and he came home. It’s nobody’s fault his stars weren’t aligned for immediate launch. In fact, researchers point out several aspects of the last fifty years transforming the life experiences of those currently in their twenties. Think feminism, the sexual revolution and economic globalism, to name a few; my son’s twenty-something years are a far cry from mine. Psychologists increasingly consider this a distinct developmental period -- “emerging adulthood.”
I expect our fully adult son will ultimately emerge, cracking open the shell of a new grown-up persona. Meanwhile, we must together navigate the uncharted terrain of the modern family twith patience -- remembering that a milestone delayed is not a milestone missed.
Read Pat’s review of When Will My Grown Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult
by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Fishel