In the film Tiny Furniture a 22-year-old girl called Aura returns home to her artist mother in a TriBeCa loft with a useless film theory degree, 357 hits on her YouTube page, and her tail between her legs.
Throwing away her clogs, she dives into a new life very similar to the one she had before college. She steals $20 bills out of her mother's Prada purse, parties on East Village fire escapes, and drinks her mom's wine.
Roughly put, that's the story of Lena Dunham, who wrote, directed, and played the leading role in this movie, which received the narrative film prize at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. It's also the story of an increasing number of young New Yorkers who live with their parents to save money while trying to launch their careers.
"The advantages of living at home are myriad," Dunham said. "The tangible are food, laundry, magazine subscriptions, someone to nurse you when you are sick; the intangible are warmth, support, humor, and the feeling of being truly home."
In 1980, 11 percent of 25-34 year-olds in New York lived in multi-generational households. By 2008 that number had jumped to 20 percent, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
In Manhattan the number of people in this age group living in their parents' homes increased by 40 percent from 2000 to 2008, all the more evidence that it has become more socially acceptable to return home to mom and dad.
This phenomenon has been accentuated by almost two years of a weak economy. Some of the laid-off young adults went back to living at home to save cash, as did recent graduates looking for jobs that are not there or going through diabolic cycles of unpaid internships.
Raised in New York, Sara Allen graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a BFA in writing last March. Then she had two fancy internships in New York, one at a public relations firm, the other at a high-end event planning firm. But nothing came out of them, and she is now living with her parents in Sugar Hill, a small town tucked in the mountains of New Hampshire, where they recently started a bed-and-breakfast.
"It's a little bit like living in a fish tank here," she said over Skype, during a break from looking
for jobs on LinkedIn and Twitter. "But right now I can't afford living on my own in New York. It's expensive."
These sons and daughters of baby boomers who have come back home after college for economic reasons have been labeled by some sociologists as "boomerangers," signaling a new
type of relationship between parents and their offspring.
"Parents should treat them like adults, and they should come back home expecting that they will have to behave like adults," said Susan Morris Shaffer, an educator for more than 35 years and co-author of the parenting guide, Mom, Can I Move Back In With You? "They should treat their parents the way they would roommates, not expecting them to do their laundry or have dinner on the table."
One of the hot issues for boomerang parents is whether or not to charge rent. Some parents charge their children no rent. Some ask for a market rate rent, others for a percentage of their children's income, and a few have devised an escalating rent scheme to put a bit of pressure on them.
Experts like Linda Perlman, a psychotherapist who co-authored Mom, Can I Move Back In With You? and the mother of a successful boomeranger, thinks that making children pay rent is only one way to teach them financial responsibility.
"The whole point of staying at home is to save money so that they can get out," she said. "Rather than financially, they can give back in kind; they could cook dinner, clean a little bit after dinner, give a ride to a sister to the gym."
That's more or less what happens at the Dunhams', where Lena doesn't pay rent but tries to contribute to household chores.
"I take out the trash, wash the dishes, pick up milk from the store, keep my music down," she said. "It's a real team effort."
Living with your parents after college and asking them for spending money after your teen years have long been regarded as something only losers do and something kids and parents should be ashamed of. But the recession has taken away much of that stigma.
"We would have rather been homeless than been back with our parents," said Shaffer. "Now it's not a failure if your child has to move back."
For young adults like Allen and Dunham, it certainly wasn't shameful.
"It would have been more shameful struggling in Bushwick obscurity just to prove a point," Dunham said. "I really like my parents, and they have excellent taste in food, décor and media. So they presented a better roommate option than most."
In some ways, the economic downturn has brought America closer to Europe in terms of parents supporting kids in their twenties, although the United States is still far from challenging countries like Italy, the long-established land of mammoni, mama's
boys who don't think twice about having their mothers wash their clothes or cook their food well into their thirties.
"If my kid asks me something like that, I'm gonna whack him on the side of his head," Shaffer said. "But parents should stop whining about their kids being at home, make it a win-win situation, and turn it into an opportunity to coach them a little bit more."