Thanks to the recession, we have a new expression in the lexicon: baby gloomers -- boomers whose adult kids have moved back home with them. Unable to find work and often saddled with college loans, 20-somethings have been turning empty nests into cluttered ones, forcing their boomer parents -- who once saw the brass ring of retirement as within their grasp -- to rethink their plans to quit working.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 21 percent of adult children ages 25 to 34 are living in multigenerational households, the highest level since the 1950s. While in some cases, the arrangement has drawn families closer, for others this way of living sometimes hits a few rough patches.
Take Susan Denley and Bill Nottingham of Los Alamitos, Calif. (who work for my former employer the Los Angeles Times but who are not personal friends of mine). They refer to the fleeting 14 months that their two adult children lived outside the family home as "the glorious months." Their 28-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter have since returned home, and while both would like to live on their own, they show no immediate signs of leaving. The son has a mini mountain of college loans to repay and is pursuing a master’s degree while holding down a job; the daughter is a hairstylist saving up for a condo of her own as she builds up her clientele.
Denley says she misses the proverbial chance for "running around in my underwear" as well as the use of her garage: Her daughter commandeered it to store her belongings and didn't want to throw anything away since she's focused on buying her own place soon.
The new living arrangements pose unique challenges: First and foremost, the kids are now adults who act like, well, adults. Denley, 61, recalls the morning that she was padding around her kitchen in her bedroom slippers when a young woman emerged from her son's bedroom. It was a spit-out-a-mouthful-of-coffee moment, she said.
Linda Perlman Gordon, co-author with Susan Morris Shaffer of "Mom Can I Move Back in With You?," said adult kids should discuss with their parents the house rules before they move back in, but few do. And when it comes to those sleepovers, parents can call the shots: There may be a younger sibling at home or religious beliefs at work, they say.
Another challenge is the “too-much-information” conundrum -- knowledge that can translate into worry. For example, Denley’s daughter recently went skydiving to celebrate a friend's birthday. "If she lived on her own, she would have called me last night and said, 'Hey, I went skydiving,'" Denley said. "Instead we were privy to all the planning. Bill and I were both worried for two weeks about whether it would be safe. Ignorance can indeed be bliss when you are a parent!"
For other parents, the opposite is true: They wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about their child’s comings and goings. Sue Friedlander, 59, and her husband Ron, 65, share their 1,700-square-foot condo in San Dimas, Calif., with their son Paul, 27. (An older daughter is married with a house and full-time job.) Paul had a few false starts with higher education and eventually became a heating and air conditioning technician, but now is looking for a job. He pretty much keeps to his room when he’s home, sometimes eating meals there, said his mother: "It's his space; he lives up there. If he socializes, he goes out. If he has a girlfriend, I'd love to meet her."
In addition, adjusting to multigenerational living can involve figuring out the finances. Both Denley, 60, and Nottingham, 61, have seen their Los Angeles Times workplace become greatly affected by cutbacks and layoffs. This is the type of scenario that can inspire careful preretirement planning. Instead, they are picking up the tab for the kids’ car insurance and their cell phones bills through a family plan. Neither child pays rent.
The Friedlanders’ son also lives rent-free but pays for his own insurance and gas. Gordon and Shaffer suggest that rent should not be not a priority, since the goal should be to let your child get financially on his or her feet; so an aggressive student loan paydown should take precedence. An adult child can make other contributions to the family: driving grandparents to appointments, fixing dinner or taking care of the laundry or the dog.
Denley’s kids, for example, run household errands and clean up their rooms; the Friedlanders' son also takes care of his room and laundry. He also lets his parents know if he won’t be home for dinner –- a rule that Denley imposed on her brood. (Texting works, which sidesteps embarrassment over "calling home to Mom.")
And there are upsides to the multigenerational arrangement, Denley admitted. For example, her son throws a party about twice a year and cooks for about 40 friends. Denley and Nottingham head out to dinner that night, returning home by 10 p.m. and then can socialize with their son and his guests.
"Nobody seems to mind having us there," she said. "We enjoy their company and that of their friends. This is still our house, so we get to set the rules. But there's something nice about being around young people that I don't think we'd be experiencing if our kids were gone.”
And as for those sleepovers, the unexpected visitor who emerged from her son's bedroom has evolved into a steady girlfriend -- she happens to live with her mother -- someone who Denley hopes will one day be a daughter-in-law.
Both sides in a multigenerational household need to compromise, Denley said: "After all, this is their home too."
Sue Friedlander agreed: "Our son seems happy with the living arrangement, although I'm sure he would rather be out of the house. As for us, we are happy to have him. We are absolutely okay with him staying with us for as long as he wants to."
(Check out the slideshow for tips on keeping a multigenerational home harmonious.)