- More adult children are moving back home—and staying there for a significant chunk of time.
- Parents and adult children need to be upfront about expectations when living under one roof.
- Parents—don’t overlook your mental and physical well-being in these moments.
Mothers and fathers across the country these days are finding themselves sharing their homes with their adult children—often long after those parents expected their kids to strike out on their own.
It’s a situation commonly referred to as “failure to launch.” Young people, finding it too tough to take their first steps into independence (or crumbling upon facing the challenges of adulthood), end up moving back in with their folks—and, in many cases, creating problems that impact the whole family.
Failure to launch is hardly a new development. But it’s become increasingly common in recent years, and increasingly frustrating for many parents with big plans for their “empty nest” stage of life.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some key issues around the challenge of adult kids failing to launch—and action steps you can take to help your kids or grandkids move out and move forward with their lives.
Today, around one-third of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 live with their parents—and for those aged 18-24, it’s more than half. That cohort has been growing for decades (23% of Americans between 18 and 34 lived with their folks in the 1960s) but especially in the past ten years or so.
It’s not hard to see why. The pandemic, overall high inflation, soaring housing prices in many cities and a host of other factors in recent years have prompted many young adults to hit pause on the usual progression of independence, marriage and family—and instead hunker down in their childhood homes. According to one report, 67% of millennials and Gen Zers who moved back home in the spring of 2020 were still living there as of late last year.
More broadly, there are a few big-picture drivers of this trend that go beyond recent events. Some young adults gravitate back to the nest after college because they don’t have the right job lined up or the necessary funds to afford rent in areas where job growth is strong. In many cases, these “boomerang kids” live at home while working to save up money to make the jump to the next stage of their lives—and eventually strike out on their own within a year or so. Twenty-something boomerangs may simply need a bit of extra time and encouragement.
In other cases, young adults may feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety about moving forward into the “real world”—and that nervousness can quickly turn into feelings of shame when they see their peers getting good jobs and promotions, partners, and the like. That shame, in turn, acts as yet another barrier to moving forward. These are the more serious types of failure to launch, as they may involve mental health issues or other deep-seated challenges that can become intractable over time.
And, of course, some young adults simply lack the ambition to take charge of their lives, especially if they can get their parents to keep coddling them. Young adults in these situations may be looking to see how far they can press their luck by getting their parents to enable their do-nothing lifestyle.
Risks of FTL
The impact of failing to launch can be mild to significant on parents. For example, a married couple enjoying the freedom of having an empty nest for years might find themselves playing host once again to a prodigal child back from campus or a first layoff. Their household is suddenly hectic and their schedules upended as they manage the clamor and clutter of their newly returned kiddo. While that could be felt as an inconvenience, it might translate to a reduced quality of life.
Consider a London School of Economics study that found when an adult child returns home to a previously empty nest, parents’ quality of life dropped by an average of 0.8 points—marking a “substantial” impact on well-being similar to what might be seen when someone develops an age-related disability.
In a Pew survey of adults living in multigenerational homes, 23% reported that their living situation was stressful all or most of the time, while 40% said it was stressful some of the time. Just 36% said it was never or rarely stressful.
In some cases, the parents’ decision to house and support a child could force them to delay travel plans or put off other projects they had been anticipating. More seriously, helping a FTL child could mean that parents must secure mental health or drug/alcohol counseling for their son or daughter—a situation with serious emotional and financial costs. And it’s even possible for FTL situations to threaten some parents’ future financial security—if, say, too much money goes to supporting the child versus to retirement savings.
Parents in a FTL situation can face a challenging balancing act: How much should they offer comfort and support to children who are held back by anxious fearfulness, and how much aggressive “tough love” encouragement should they give to kids to get out on their own? And, regardless, how can parents and their adult children coexist with as much peace and as little stress as possible under one roof?
Consider these action steps.
Step #1: Run the numbers.
Financial advisors recommend taking a long look at previous assumptions about funding golden years and doing a hard calculation of household finances in light of an unexpected houseguest. Depending on the situation, monthly expenditures to help provide for boomerang kids could be considerably steeper than many parents expect. Do the math to know where you stand.
Step #2: Talk about finances upfront.
Many boomerang kids move back home because they don’t have a job lined up or they lack the capital to pay first/last/deposit on a rental. Understandably, many parents don’t charge rent given the situation. But that’s not an arrangement that should last indefinitely. And it certainly doesn’t mean parents are obligated for any hospitality beyond a bed, a hot shower and meals. Talk early and specifically about the new houseguests’ potential financial obligations—whether/when they should pay rent, how much they should kick in for groceries, how they’re going to cover their health insurance—and map out timetables or benchmarks for when they have to start meeting those monetary obligations. Put it in writing so the terms are documented.
Step #3: Make the child have skin in the game.
If the child is working at all, consider charging them a reasonable rent of, say, 10% or 20% of whatever their income is each month. It’s important to offer loved ones a roof over their heads as they’re trying to find their footing and plot their future, of course. But it’s also important to ensure boomerang kids have some skin in the game. Likewise, you might require a child to pay for a certain percentage of the grocery bill or utilities. Conversely, mowing the lawn and other chores could be options for payment.
This is not just for dollars-and-cents reasons, of course, but also for the moral edification such a small monthly stipend might represent. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all, and it’s worth remembering that some younger folks need reminding of that. As a bonus, a modest stream of income for yourself might be welcome.
Step #4: Communicate “new” rules for the house.
When a 20-something child moves back home—or never leaves to begin with—the dynamic is very different from when they were living there as a child. Make sure they’re aware that there will be new rules (some of which may indeed be updated versions of rules that were in place when they were teenagers), and then enforce them. The rules might include no smoking, no video games, no late evenings or no friends over during the week. Your home is your castle, and you are its sovereign. Likewise, you might make the child responsible for chores you used to do—laundry, cooking and so on.
Step #5: Don’t let the new dynamic disrupt your schedule.
You may feel strong familial obligations to provide for a well-meaning son or daughter, but that doesn’t give them the right to disrupt your home life and patterns of living. Make every effort to do your own thing the way you always did it and not let this new arrival—however related to you they may be—throw a monkey wrench into your plans (whether it’s the weekly Thursday book club in your kitchen or a monthlong trip to Europe).
Step #6: Keep mental health top of mind—theirs and yours.
FTL moments are challenging, and the circumstances that can lead to an adult child living with their folks—skyrocketing rents, challenging job markets, even social media that warps expectations about life—are very real. Remember that adult children aren’t usually proud to be living in their old rooms, even if they’re overstaying their welcome. Look out for (and be sensitive to) feelings of depression, anxiety and embarrassment. Be sure to prioritize your own mental well-being, of course, and get professional help if you think you need it.
Step #7: Set expectations around timing.
Adult children should understand from the moment they move back in that it’s a temporary arrangement. That doesn’t necessarily mean a short-term arrangement, nor does there have to be a defined move-out date. That can be adjusted as circumstances merit. The key step is to ensure the child knows that they eventually will move out on their own. As the situation evolves, you can ease the transition by reducing the amount and types of home comforts you provide so the child’s life under your roof doesn’t stay too cushy. Tell your child that doing more things on their own is helpful to them, even if it’s also annoying to them, and that they’re positioning themselves for a better transition by doing more over time.
Keep in mind that none of this is easy. Managing FTLs and boomerang kids requires a balancing act between the natural feeling of obligation toward one’s own offspring with the tough love necessary to help them make it in the world. It’s okay to provide for an adult who needs to live back at home for a spell. But ultimately the parents are the ones who must be responsible for ensuring clear boundaries and effective communication to help protect their own financial and emotional well-being. With some smart planning, clear expectations and a little luck, the U-Haul will likely soon be loaded up in the driveway as your grown children head off for some life adventures of their own.