Look homeward, jobless children

The number of adults living with their parents is on the rise.

Brian Griffith was earning six figures before he lost his job
when his company downsized. Now, he lives with his parents,
pitching in on chores in his childhood home.
Brian Griffith was earning six figures before he lost his job when his company downsized. Now, he lives with his parents, pitching in on chores in his childhood home.

A growing number of adults, from recent graduates in a fruitless job hunt to experienced workers laid off during the recession, are doing the same in search of a stronger economic foothold. The trend has been building for years, part of a culture shift in which children are waiting longer to leave the nest, but it’s intensified since the downturn cast thousands out of work or into part-time jobs with little pay.

About 4.2 million workers ages 20 to 29 were unemployed last year, nearly double the number in 2007, before the recession began. Countless others traded full-time jobs for part-time or temporary work or accepted lower-paying positions.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report found moving home “is a strategy employed by less advantaged individuals … to handle economic uncertainty and to make ends meet during times of economic strain” – and that it’s happening more often.

The number of adult children living with their parents increased by 1.2 million from 2008 to 2010, a gain of about 5 percent, the report found.

Statistics from AARP corroborate the trend. In a November 2010 survey, 25 percent of households headed by someone 45 to 64 years old reported an adult child living in the house. That’s up from 12 percent in November 2009.

Nearly one in five of those households said the child returned in the last six months.

“When young adults move home, it protects them economically,” said Kathleen Harris, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which has examined the issue. “They’re less likely to have the material hardships of not having a phone or having their utilities turned off.”

It’s more likely for young adults to move in with their parents for economic reasons these days than in years past, partly because people are waiting longer to marry, she said.

Some young adults see moving home as a last resort when other plans fail; for others, it’s a way to save money while going back to school or determining a future career path. Some parents have welcomed or even suggested it, while others have struggled under the added financial pressure of another adult at home.

Children living at home face challenges, too: Harris’ study found that young adults living with their parents were more likely to report poor overall health, stress and sleep problems than those living on their own, due in part to anxiety about the job search, she said.

And in most cases, it takes time for both parents and their children to navigate – for the second time – life under one roof.

“It’s kind of frustrating, because you really want to be out on your own,” said Jennifer Starr, 24, who has lived with her parents since spring 2009. “Everybody acts like you have to have your life planned out. Unfortunately nowadays … life doesn’t always end up the way you plan.”

Starr graduated from UNC Greensboro in December 2008 with a degree in hospitality and tourism management and aspirations of event planning. With jobs scarce, she accepted an internship at a Walt Disney World resort, hoping it would lead to a full-time job.

It didn’t. So months later, Starr moved home to Charlotte.

She has since taken on some temporary administrative and sales work but has found the job market difficult, particularly because of competition from more experienced workers. Starr enjoys the rent-free living and the freedom being at home has afforded her, but she’s eager to move out of her childhood bedroom and wants to work and travel.

Starr’s parents think the move has been tougher on their daughter than them, her father, Greg, said. He’s watched his daughter submit more than 1,000 job applications, he said.

“Her not finding full-time employment is not of her own fault,” said Greg Starr, who works as director of a building services company. “The decision (for her to move home) came about by default of the economy and the lack of jobs.”

Some young adults say living at home positioned them better for the future, shaky economy or not.

Jamie Lillard, 22, of Hendersonville, in western North Carolina, landed a sports marketing internship after she graduated last year from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. It was a promising opportunity in the absence of a full-time job offer, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in the field.

“Like a lot of students, I thought, I’ve interned every semester, every summer, I have a lot of experience and good grades – I’m going to get a job,” said Lillard, who majored in art history. “I quickly found that people, in general, don’t want to hire liberal arts majors.”

She moved in with her parents last summer – a difficult decision. But that bought her time to think about her future.

Lillard applied to graduate school and was accepted at Vanderbilt, where she’ll pursue her master’s in accounting.

“If I immediately started working, I don’t know if I would have decided that,” she said. “So I’m really thankful.”

Griffith, 26, said he had a six-figure income handling public relations and sales at a Greensboro senior living center. When the job ended in January, moving home wasn’t exactly a free ride.

“It was like chores all over again – laundry, dishwasher, mowing the grass,” he said. “They laid the ground rules. And that’s a weird feeling at 26, after you’ve been out eight years. We all had to relearn each other.”

But it was a necessary decision, said Griffith, who was about to close on his first home before his job was eliminated. His apartment lease was ending, and he didn’t want a roommate. He dreamed of starting his own business and knew conserving money would be key.

His parents – his father owns a business that sells uniforms, and his mother works as an educational consultant for a family services nonprofit – agreed to support him, but they asked him to pitch in on the cooking, cleaning and yard work at their home in Statesville.

He’s still responsible for his car payments and insurance, and the family set a timetable – six to eight months to move out or start paying rent, Griffith said. His mother, Jennifer, also suggested a motto, borrowed from her son’s days as an Eagle Scout: “Leave no trace.”

“We had about three years on our own, and we had kind of settled into a routine,” said Jennifer Griffith. “It was kind of different having somebody in the house all the time. I have found that he still doesn’t like to clean his room.”

There were other details to sort through: Brian Griffith’s parents had turned his room into a guest bedroom, so he sleeps in his brother’s old room. But moving home has given Brian Griffith the time and money to fulfill his dream: He opened Water Street Marketplace, a shop selling gifts, art and accessories, in Statesville this month.

And despite their initial concerns, his parents have enjoyed his company at home.

“He’s a lot more mature than he was when he left the first time,” Jennifer Griffith said.