‘Accordion’ Families Expand for Boomerang Kids, ‘Parasite Singles’ to Move Home

February 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In her new book, "The Accordion Family," sociologist Katherine Newman examines why more young adults in the world's wealthiest countries are returning home to live with their parents -- a phenomenon that Paul Solman has come across repeatedly in his reporting on global economic problems as part of his Making Sen$e series.

GWEN IFILL: Now, young adults who leave the nest, only to come right back home again.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at what is behind that growing trend. It’s part of his regular reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Schaffer residence in Newton, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Fraternal twins Becky and Naomi both went away to college in Canada, graduated last year. Both worked part-time. And both are so-called boomerang kids, back home with their parents.

KATHERINE NEWMAN, author, “The Accordion Family”: Can you tell us a little bit about what your high school friends are doing now? Are many of them back in Newton as well?

BECKY SCHAFFER, college graduate: Yes. Most of them are. I would say that only one of our high school friends, or two — one or two of them have really gotten good full-time jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: The fifth person in the Schaffers’ kitchen? Sociologist and Johns Hopkins Dean Katherine Newman, demonstrating her field work skills.

NAOMI SCHAFFER, college graduate: I didn’t want to move somewhere random.

BECKY SCHAFFER: I kind of wish I did it, not that I don’t have living at home, but . . .

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Why do you say that?

BECKY SCHAFFER: I just feel like, when I first moved home, I was like OK, Becky, like, six months, and then you’re, like, not going to here anymore, you’re going to move out. And I feel like I’m getting a little bit complacent.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Schaffers could have sprung straight from Newman’s new book, “The Accordion Family,” which chronicles a worldwide trend that is reversing what we used to think normal.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: In my generation, if you didn’t leave home at 18, there was something really wrong with you. This phenomenon of young people either boomeranging back or never leaving has grown like topsy.

PAUL SOLMAN: What exactly is an accordion family?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: An accordion family — the reason I use the accordion term is to capture this sense of expansion and contraction, that the family is not a stable group. It’s sort of moving in and out. But primarily, I mean multigenerational households with working or non-working young adults and their parents.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the accordion is being pulled out.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: It’s being pulled out, and especially it’s being pulled in the younger direction. We have had accordion families of a different kind in the past that stretch to incorporate the older generation.

PAUL SOLMAN: My grandfather lived with our family when I was a kid.


KATHERINE NEWMAN: Right. That is less the case now. So the accordion is stretching in the other direction. And when you tie that together with the recession, which is making everyone so anxious about the economic future of rising generations, it’s a recipe for panic in many cultures.

PAUL SOLMAN: The culture most alarmed, Japan’s, which calls its boomerang kids parasite singles. The one featured in this TV show looks like he’s pushing middle age.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: In Japan, it is provoking really almost hysterical reactions.


KATHERINE NEWMAN: Well, because the Japanese view is that this is indicative of a damaged generation that’s not taking its place, its orderly, correct place in the trajectory of life in Japan.

When you ask, why are your children at home, what you get is a highly moralistic explanation. It’s all about how these kids these days, they’re not behaving properly. They have rejected our way of life. They don’t seem to know how to grow up.

PAUL SOLMAN: No wonder there is such falling birth rates in these places.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Right, below replacement fertility. The same is true in Spain and Italy. So all the countries where you have these accordion families are countries in which the birth rates have fallen through the floorboards.

PAUL SOLMAN: I actually stayed with an accordion family on a reporting trip to Spain in 2010. High youth unemployment meant that more than half of all 20- and 30-somethings were back home, including the son of my friend journalist Jose Antonio Soler.

Daughter Andrea, visiting her folks with some friends, explained.

ANDREA MARTINEZ WESTLEY, daughter: Most of our friends live in their parents’ houses because they can’t pay rent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like your brother, living here.

ANDREA MARTINEZ WESTLEY: Yes, like my brother.

Like his brothers — he has four brothers. And three of them are still living with his parents, which his oldest brother is 32 and he’s still living with his parents.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unlike the Japanese, though, Spaniards have an economic explanation for their generation: (SPEAKING SPANISH) neither studying nor working.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: They will say, my child is still at home because the government liberalized contracts, rubbish contracts. That’s the phrase they would use, rubbish contracts, that permitted short-term employment, part-time wages, and within less than a decade a huge chunk of Spanish youth were found in those kinds of jobs, short-term, part-time. They couldn’t earn enough money to own a home. And there’s very little rental housing in countries like Spain and Italy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Newman’s accordion family project was actually launched in Italy when, in a conversation with a researcher there, Newman first learned that attitudes toward boomerang boys (SPEAKING ITALIAN) are culture-specific.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: You know, we’re just talking about our families. What do your kids do? What do my kids do? And she said: “Well, my son, he is 35. And I clean his room every day. And I take care of his laundry.”

And I was trying to control my reaction and say, gee, that’s really interesting, rather than what I was thinking, which was, are you crazy?


PAUL SOLMAN: And she’s a professional, I take it?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Just like me, exactly.

And I said, “What’s it like having your son at home at 35?”

And she said, “Well, why would he ever leave me?”

PAUL SOLMAN: So, in Italy, they’re happy with accordion families. With Spain, they’re not so happy. Japan, they’re really unhappy.

So what’s the American attitude towards accordion families, boomerang kids?

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Complicated, ambivalent. Our view of whether this is a problem depends a lot on where we think these kids are headed.

PAUL SOLMAN: But where they’re headed these days is impossible to predict.

Evan Melillo had a B.A. in history as of June 2009. A job in town government, a town just north of Cape Cod didn’t pan out. So?

EVAN MELILLO, college graduate: I went on Craigslist and I looked up every tutoring, assistant teacher, sub, you know, anything with even remotely — I think I applied to a driving school. And so far, I got two e-mails back.

PAUL SOLMAN: Making just $72 a week, he’d moved back home, where his older brother had lived for years.

In December 2010, he found steady work as a substitute teacher and is now also pursuing a graduate degree, all the while living at home.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: If your children come home and they’re making tracks toward the future, then it seems like a very reasonable likelihood that they’re going to be fine. Then families feel quite comfortable about it.

But if it feels indefinite, if it’s not clear it’s going to work out, if their plans don’t materialize, that sets off a wave of anxiety in American households. And we tend to make that nervousness rain down on them in the form of persistent questions — did you apply for jobs today, did you look for that master’s degree program, and try to negotiate very delicately some form of parental encouragement.

PAUL SOLMAN: Prod, a parental prod.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: There are some silver linings to this.

If your child is not leaving home, then you’re not becoming older. You might be biologically older, but, sociologically, you’re not. And when they’re in your home, you don’t treat them the same way, the surveillance, the anxiety, all that nasty stuff they had to do when they were teenagers.

PAUL SOLMAN: At the Schaffers, parents Kenny and Lianne were mostly positive about their no-longer empty nest.

LIANNE SCHAFFER, mother: It’s a pleasure really to have them around, even though it’s more work and more, you know, mess and all that.

PAUL SOLMAN: The girls’ take?

BECKY SCHAFFER: Even though my parents are cool, it’s nice to live by yourself in an apartment and not kind of have to answer to anyone.

PAUL SOLMAN: You can’t sleep until 2:00 in the afternoon.

BECKY SCHAFFER: Oh, I do that. But I can’t — like, you know, I can’t sit in my living room and drink with my friends until late into the night, like I did in college. And that’s okay. But, I mean, this is like our family’s home, so I can’t just do whatever I want.

NAOMI SCHAFFER: I’m here indefinitely.

PAUL SOLMAN: There is this notion that you ought to be moving on in your life.

NAOMI SCHAFFER: Yeah. However, seeing that the job market isn’t ideal, I’m not in a rush to find something to do to start my career. So, until I figure that out, I’m not going to do anything drastic.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: You look across these countries, and you see that everywhere where there used to be long-term employment, this has shifted toward part-time contracts. It’s easier to fire workers.

The accordion family becomes the way in which we step up and try to cure all of the ills of the marketplace. And we make the best of it. And I think we actually deserve some pat on the back for doing so. It’s an indication of the resilience of American families that we do so. But it has its limits.

PAUL SOLMAN: Both kids, or two of your three kids back home? Would you prefer them to be living on their own?

KEN SCHAFFER, father: If you asked me the same question in 10 years, yes, I might have a different answer. But, right now, I like having them home a lot.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: If this reaches 28, if this reaches 30, and they still can’t see their way to an independent future, I think we will start to draw the line and really worry in very profound ways about where the country is going.

And in very many ways, I think that’s exactly where we are right now. We’re not sure where we’re going economically and what the future will hold for the next generation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hey, who is sure about the future these days?