More than a year ago, Joseph Melita graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with dreams of a marketing career and a place of his own. Today, he drives an armored truck on a salary that's too low to pay rent and pay off his school debt. He lives with his father and stepmother in the finished basement of their Alexandria (Va.) home. "I don't want to burden them forever," says Melita, 23, whose space includes a bathroom, fireplace, and cable TV. "But it's pretty easy. I'm getting used to it."
That's exactly what many parents who thought they had moved on to empty-nestdom fear. The economic downturn is forcing many young adults back to the family roost after attending college or living independently elsewhere. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.9% of 20-to-24-year-olds were unemployed in September, vs. 6.7% in September, 2000. The jobless rate for 25-to-34-year-olds rose to 6.3% from 3.7% over the period.
Return rates tend to rise during high unemployment, but student debt and high housing costs also are factors. The stigma of living at home has also lessened, says Barbara Mitchell, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who has researched these "boomerang kids." According to a recent survey by MonsterTRAK, a division of job-search Web site Monster, nearly 40% of 1,831 recent college grads say they intend to live with their parents for at least seven months.
Most parents and their grown children are satisfied with the arrangement, Mitchell has found, as long as the kids don't leave and return too often. One ingredient for mutually satisfying coexistence, she says, is "a clear meeting of the minds right from the start."
When a son or daughter moves back in, families should discuss their feelings about, say, the child's embarrassment over his or her unexpected dependence or the parents' privacy concerns. Once that's out in the open, parents should set clear expectations about a job-search agenda, personal behavior, and contributions to household expenses and chores. Olivia Mellan, a therapist in Washington, who counsels families on money issues, says parents and their grown children should decide on a timetable for departure or benchmarks that show progress toward financial independence.
Depending on how much structure a young adult needs, Mellan says, you could require your kid to send out a certain number of r?sum?s a week or to look for temporary work after a specified time searching for permanent employment. When an employed child is home to save money for a house or debt reduction, you can ask for a regular progress report.
Expectations need to be realistic. "Most recent college grads entered college during the best job market in their lifetime and left it at the worst," says Jeff Taylor, chairman of Monster. That means few can hold out for that dream job. Instead, parents may have to urge a child to settle for part-time or lesser-paying work, though that could extend financial dependence.
Parents also need to set rules on household contributions. Ask him or her to chip in for food or set a date when you will start charging rent -- an amount, says Mellan, that would both allow the child to save money and make it "clear that living there does cost something." At the least, young adults should help with housework, meal preparation, and shopping.
It's easy to fall back into old habits -- but remember, your kids are no longer children. It's unrealistic to set a curfew, for instance. But if you don't approve of overnight guests, alcohol, or loud music, say so at the outset.
At the Melitas, Joseph took the armored-car job last April after he left a low-paying sales position in January. In the interim, he was unable to find marketing work and would hang around the house "bummed out," he says, when he received no replies to his inquiries. He changed his ways when his father, Anthony, 48, told him he would have to move out if he didn't get some job.
The elder Melita, a Defense Dept. employee, says his son helps with chores when asked, though they don't have a set agreement. Joseph is saving for an apartment and pays for his health insurance and personal expenses. Early on, Dad told Joseph he had to cut back on visits from his girlfriend because they violated his privacy. Stepmom Sara, 36, says: "As long as he is working and contributes, I don't mind him staying." But, she adds: "He will not live here when he is 26."
As the Melitas are finding, striking a balance between nurturing your child in hard times and nudging him to move out is tricky. And until the labor picture improves, parents who had hoped to turn their kid's room into a den may have to stow the fabric swatches for a while. By Susan Garland