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  • How are brands adapting to a ‘boomerang generation’?
  • How are brands adapting to a ‘boomerang generation’?
    Wade Austin Ellis (2019) ©
REPORT

What’s stopping young adults from growing up?

The life path that past generations took for granted is no longer possible for many Gen Yers. Faced with mounting debts, a growing number are delaying marriage, forgoing car-ownership, and moving back in with their parents. How are these changes impacting home life and society as a whole?

Location United States

Scope
An assortment of obstacles now litters the traditional life path that most Americans followed just a few decades ago. No longer venturing to the promised land of autonomous living and glittering career paths following college, many adults in their early, mid, and late 20s are bedding back into the family home. According to research conducted by Zillow, 22% of 23- to 37-year-olds in the US are either still living in their family home or have returned after flying the coop, up from 11.7% in 2001. [1]

This transition back to the childhood home after college, or a failure to leave after high school, has radically altered definitions of adulthood and success. Long-established milestones of maturity are losing some of their importance, with home-ownership rates, for instance, falling from 64.8% in Q4 2018 to 64.2% in Q1 2019 – the first such decline since 2017. [2] This drop is partly attributed to Gen Yers struggling with steep mortgage rates, high property prices, and crippling debt; in 2018, the average American aged 25-34 owed $42,000, with credit cards accounting for a quarter of that sum and student loans making up 16%. [3][4]

Young Americans are also less driven to leave the family home because they’re marrying later – or not at all. In 1962, 90% of 30-year-olds had been married at least once. By 2018, that proportion was just 54%. [5] Given the high price of getting hitched, going through the expensive wedding process is less of a priority for Gen Yers, 60% of whom define financial ‘success’ as being debt-free. With 58% of 18- to 34-year-olds in the US claiming they wouldn’t be able to afford their current lifestyles without ongoing financial support from their parents, achieving independence is proving to be a challenge. [6] So, how is life at home changing due to stay-at-home kids and a ‘boomerang generation’? And how are brands supporting Gen Yers as they inch toward self-sufficiency?

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Sharing everything
Gen Yers have had a particularly raw deal financially compared to previous generations. Shiv Malik, an expert on intergenerational inequality, believes that it is so bad that it “goes against the grain of modernity itself – the notion that life in the future will be better than the past.” [7] One response to this reality has been a shift away from the acquisition of large, long-term investments (property, furniture, cars, etc.) and an embrace of portable, disposable consumerism – the sharing economy. This access model to goods and services chimes well with perennial Gen Y concerns such as sustainability, equality, and social justice. “[This is] a generation that tends to be very vocal about consumption, about the environment,” says Julian Fisher, the founder and CEO of lifestyle app jisp. “We’re increasingly seeing a ‘Spotify mentality’. In effect, we’re renting everything.” [8]

This attitude toward consumption underpins even the most essential purchases. Grocery sharing app Olio connects users in the same area, allowing them to share food and other household products. The company’s tag line (‘When did food sharing become weirder than wasting it?’) resonates with Gen Yers keen to minimize their environmental impact and promote a more just and sustainable society. Through its use of mobile technology, the app is encouraging a kind of mutually supportive community and is aiming to change the narrative around food consumption. After all, it’s estimated that over a third of the food produced globally goes to waste, and few generations have as good a grasp on their environmental responsibility as today’s young adults. [9]

Another consequence of Gen Y’s eco-awareness has been a fall in car-ownership, with companies such as Lyft, Uber, and Zipcar having capitalized on a market of metropolitans driven by convenience and sustainability. According to a forecast from JD Power and LMC Automotive, car sales in the US were set to be 3.5% lower in April 2019 than in April 2018, with a particularly steep decline in demand for cheaper cars – sales of vehicles priced below $20,000 were thought to be 25% lower over the same period. [10] This suggests that young adults who might be at the age to buy their first car are either relying on the convenience of ride-hailing or continuing to borrow their parents’ rides at home.

Long-term ownership doesn’t suit short-term residents
Long-term ownership doesn’t suit short-term residents
Brandon Hoogenboom (2019) ©

Family time
A popular narrative is that intergenerational cohabitation is producing a generation of lazy, thin-skinned, and immature adults. “[Living at home] fosters learned helplessness,” says Suzanne Noble, a PR expert and founder of Frugl. “It creates a group of people who are taking longer to learn personal and financial responsibility.” [11] But Henry Rose Lee, a consultant and intergenerational expert, is reluctant to buy into the notion of a feckless boomerang generation. “It’s very dangerous to say that someone’s growth is being stunted if they are living in a loving, caring environment at home,” she says. “They may be more stable than those who rush out into the big, wide world, which can be shockingly isolating and financially very stressful.” [12]

Research published by the University of Waterloo in Canada supports Lee’s view. It found that while the reasons for young adults returning home were broadly understood – the cost of living/renting, a tumultuous job market, credit card and student debts – the reality of living with grown-up children was markedly different from the stereotypes. Far from enduring the demands of entitled Peter Pans and Wendys, many parents reported the benefits of the arrangement. “Interestingly, supportive parents encouraged their adult children to live at home regardless of financial insecurity,” reads the report. “Out of the individuals interviewed, many reported having positive and mutually supportive relationships with their parents. Young adults and their parents provided support in the form of physical and emotional labor, demonstrating high interdependence among family members.” [13]

It’s very dangerous to say that someone’s growth is being stunted if they are living in a loving, caring environment at home. They may be more stable than those who rush out into the big, wide world

Henry Rose Lee, consultant and intergenerational expert

As the study highlighted, there is nothing inherently unusual about living with one’s parents into adulthood. It is still commonplace across several cultures, as it has been historically in the West. In this light, changing the narrative around living at home is just as important – and easier – than shifting the stubborn socio-economic factors that have made it a necessity. “Americans tend to think we don’t need family. Or anyone actually,” writes Melanie Hamlett for The Guardian. “But it’s not quite as important as self-determination and the right to pursue individual happiness (like moving out at 18 and maybe even owning a gun), and we like to shame any Millennial who dares to question our collective allegiance to this destructive bootstraps mentality that unbridled capitalism hinges on.” [14]

For all of the support parents and adult children can provide each other, intergenerational living isn’t entirely rosy. Research from LSE suggests that boomerang kids can cause a significant decline in parents’ wellbeing regardless of the reason for their move back home. The study found parents’ wellbeing and sense of satisfaction with life declined by an average of 0.8 points when cohabiting with kids – an effect similar to developing an age-related issue like difficulty in walking or getting dressed. It concludes: “Parents enjoy their independence when their children leave the home, and refilling an empty nest may be regarded as a violation of this life course stage.” [15]

Parent-child dynamics are often friendlier as kids grow up
Parent-child dynamics are often friendlier as kids grow up
Matthew T Rader (2018) ©

Skills shortage
The rise of intergenerational living requires a recalibration of those skills society considers ‘essential’. In the US, declining car-ownership among Gen Yers appears to correlate with a decline in young adults learning to drive. [16] Similarly, a survey conducted in the UK found that Gen Yers are the worst out of current generations at standard home maintenance tasks like repairing shelves and fixing leaky taps, while Boomers were the most competent. [17] This loss of DIY competency is at least partly down to the constant churn of rental accommodation that most Gen Yers are subjected to. After all, why learn to repair and put down roots when it’s likely you’ll be moving on soon?

“Access to cheap labor has contributed [to this decline],” says Noble. “If you can call someone up on TaskRabbit and get them to hang your pictures for $40, what’s the point in learning yourself?” However, she adds that this trend is unfortunate since “there’s a certain pleasure in knowing how to fix things.” [11] Some brands haven’t lamented this shift – they’ve capitalized on it. For instance, Feather offers a subscription-based service for furniture rental. Founder Jay Reno believes his model appeals to mobile, metropolitan young adults who want to create a homely space, but don’t want to be shackled to a heap of clunky furniture. It also taps into Gen Y’s appreciation for frugality and simplicity. “We need to change our relationship with things, because things tie you down to a place, things make us less focused on relationships and people,” he says. “We want to help usher in that change away from ownership.” [18]

Another reading of the decline in practical skills is that young adults are simply ditching those abilities that they believe are obsolete, instead embracing those that might stand them in better stead for the future. Younger generations are highly entrepreneurial and globalist in their outlook, seeing themselves as citizens of the world capable of seizing all the available opportunities. “The world has got more expensive, but it’s also got flatter,” says Lee. “Our youngest generations have more of a sense of global possibilities. [So], skills will be lost, but new skills learned.” She cites David Holt’s idea of a ‘Shift Age’ to describe the current moment: “Change is coming so fast, we get movements like tectonic plates – they’re not even or predictable and they’re difficult to label. Successful people will be those who can move with the times.” [12]

Gen Yers are more likely to fix the Wi-Fi than to fix a shelf
Gen Yers are more likely to fix the Wi-Fi than to fix a shelf
Houston Ray (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
With 36% of Gen Yers claiming they were making just enough money to cover their expenses in 2018 and 17% saying they weren’t earning enough, intergenerational cohabitation is here to stay. [19] The life path that previous generations took for granted – education, steady career, a house, a family – is no longer possible, or even desirable. Brands may, therefore, reap the rewards by recognizing the new norms for Gen Yers. For example, challenger bank Monzo has successfully tapped into a cohort that is restlessly mobile and with limited disposable income. Its orange debit cards have become a status symbol among young adults in big cities, a perception helped by the fact that around the time of the brand’s launch, each new customer was gifted a ‘golden ticket’ – a chance for a friend to beat the sign-up waiting list, thus assuring the card’s aura of exclusivity.

Companies may also acknowledge that the typical nuclear family doesn’t represent Gen Y’s reality. There’s a need for adverts that present a diversity of possible living arrangements, including adult children taking a productive and proactive role. Brands could take a cue from Helsinki’s ‘Oman Muotoinen Koti’ (A Home that Fits) scheme, which gives young people under the age of 25 cheap accommodation for a year inside the city’s Rudolf Seniors Home. The initiative is designed to cut rates of homelessness and provide social benefits to the seniors in the home. [20] Founder Miki Mielonen says: “I know that there are so many young people who really want to be with old people. As for the old people, they have lots of experience and lots to give but their social lives are not too active any more. Different generations will understand each other more.” [21]

Outside of the home, employers are being forced to contend with increasingly fluid definitions of adulthood and independence. In fact, the workplace is often where stereotypes about age prove most prevalent and corrosive. Lee believes that ageism at both ends is “insidious, horrendous and very much in evidence in the corporate world.” She recommends that organizations establish an innovation hub so that powerful ideas can be diffused more effectively and junior employees don’t feel stifled when expressing their ideas. Additionally, companies should prioritize communication and transparency, perhaps through initiatives like co-mentoring where senior and junior employees reflect on and share their experiences. [12] Despite age differences and changeable periodic factors, the successful modern workplace is one that seeks to erode distinctions of age and promote a supportive internal culture.

Related behaviours
Beta Lives: People aren’t adhering to linear life stages

Sources
1. 'More millennials are living at home than at any other time this century', CBS News (May 2019)
2. 'Homeownership across America is on the decline for the first time since 2017, and millennials are partially to blame', Business Insider (April 2019)
3. 'Millennials: taking over the internet and the economy', Forbes (September 2017)
4. 'Millennials ages 25-34 have $42,000 in debt, and most of it isn’t from student loans', CNBC (August 2018)
5. 'Here's when you're probably getting married', Business Insider (February 2019)
6. 'Financial independence: the ultimate goal and biggest hurdle for today’s early adults, Merrill Lynch study finds', Business Wire (April 2019)
7. Interview with Shiv Malik conducted by the author
8. Interview with Julian Fisher conducted by the author
9. '10 food waste facts', Olio
10. 'New vehicle retail sales continue to decline, but demand for expensive vehicles rises', PR Newswire (April 2019)
11. Interview with Suzanne Noble conducted by the author
12. Interview with Henry Rose Lee conducted by the author
13. 'Gen Y at home: understanding why young adults live with parents in Toronto, Canada', University of Waterloo (September 2017)
14. 'Why do we still shame adults who live with their parents?', The Guardian (February 2018)
15. 'Parents’ lives made more miserable by the ‘boomerang generation’ returning home', ScienceDaily (March 2018)
16. 'Driving? The kids are so over it', The Wall Street Journal (April 2019)
17. 'Constant renting drives decline in DIY skills', Canvas8 (August 2019)
18. 'The changing nature of ownership: How brands are catering for ‘generation rent’', Marketing Week (December 2018)
19. 'The Millennial Economy 2018', EY (2018)
20. 'Why young people are renting rooms in a Helsinki care home', The Guardian (June 2017)
21. 'Young people given cheap rents in Finnish seniors home', CNN (January 2016)

Featured Experts

Suzanne Noble

Suzanne Noble is a PR expert, founder of Frugl, and co-founder of the social enterprise Advantages of Age.

Henry Rose Lee

Henry Rose Lee is a consultant, TEDx speaker, and intergenerational expert. Her latest book is ‘The Code for New Leaders’.

Shiv Malik

Shiv Malik is a journalist and author. He is the co-author of ‘Jilted Generation: How Britain Bankrupted its Youth’ and, most recently, ‘The Messenger’.

Julian Fisher

Julian Fisher is the founder and CEO of lifestyle app jisp.

Author

Alex Diggins is a writer and journalist based in London. He has written for The Economist, The TLS, New Welsh Review, Bristol 24/7, and The Bristol Cable, among other publications. He is published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain's Youth.

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