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The boomerang kid bounces back in Jeff Who Lives at Home

14 May 2012

Grownup children still living with their parents get a pretty bad press. In Britain and America they're labelled "Kippers" (Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) or "Yuckies" (Young Unwitting Costly Kids). In Australia it's "Slops" (Singles Living Off Parents). In Italy it's "Bamboccioni" (Big Babies). The Japanese are even less delicate: their "parasaito shinguru" translates as "Parasite Singleton".

Still, the implication that these cuckoos in the nest are cramping their hosts' lifestyle seems not without foundation. Surveys suggest that parents are having to sell their cars, remortgage their homes or postpone retirement to support their boomerang offspring. All the same, the beneficiaries of such sacrifice have plenty of gripes of their own. They bemoan their lack of privacy, dignity, autonomy and somewhere seemly to shag.

Cinema too has frowned on their way of life. The title Failure to Launch hardly suggests approbation. As that film's 35-year-old homebody is winkled out by true love, his parents gratefully carol "Hit the road, Jack". In Lonesome Jim, two brothers aged 27 and 32 who've moved back in with their parents bicker about whose life has been more pathetic. Rodent-obsessed Mummy's boy Willard is hardly a role model.

In the shape of Cyrus, the Duplass brothers also gave us a less than wholly enticing version of the overgrown stay-at-home. However, with Jeff Who Lives at Home, they dare to take a less conventional tack. Jason Segal's Jeff may look like a hopeless loser even to his put-upon mom; but he isn't.

At 30, he's unemployed, unkempt and unable even to run a goof-free errand. Yet unlike his thrusting brother, who's bogged down in getting, spending and matrimony, Jeff enjoys the space to philosophise. Repeat viewings of M Night Shyamalan's Signs teach him that the apparent randomness of the universe hides a pattern that will shape his destiny. This insight enables him to save not only strangers' lives but his family's equanimity.

So absurd is this set-up that it can't really be criticised as far-fetched or sentimental. It can only be taken as a fanciful surrender to Jeff's delusory world-view. All the same, it raises a question. Is the unemptied nest an entirely bad thing?

It's certainly becoming ever more common. In Britain, eight out of 10 men in their 20s now live at home, compared with six only 15 years ago.

Some people identify the whole phenomenon with the supposed infantilisation of men, as discussed in Steve Rose's article last week. However, the number of female twentysomething stay-at-homes, though smaller, has risen at exactly the same rate as its masculine equivalent. The pressures created by youth unemployment, unpaid internships, stratospheric house prices, unobtainable mortgages and soaring rents aren't gender-specific.

Some hold that immutable forces like these are accompanied by growing laziness and entitlement on the part of young people who have become too self-indulgent to flat-share and reluctant to forgo free laundry, Mum's cooking and Dad's booze. These gloomsters warn that parents who don't want to let go are entrenching helplessness and dependency. In return they can expect household chaos, domestic squabbling and eventual disaffection from their progeny.

A Belgian study did indeed find that "continued co-residence with parents during emerging adulthood slows down the process by which an individual moves toward becoming a self-sufficient and independent adult." An Australian probe suggested that returning offspring can impair their parents' sex lives.

Yet research also shows that a prolonged sojourn in the parental home no longer provokes much surprise or disdain. Normalisation is under way, and with it seem to be coming more positive attitudes on all sides. As a result, cohabitation is delivering unexpected benefits, at least for some.

A Canadian study found that "returns to the nest are not typically characterised by dissatisfaction and conflict." On the contrary, the experience often proves enjoyable and instructive. Both sides are coming to recognise this.

When forced to communicate and negotiate as adults, family members can develop much healthier relationships than they hitherto enjoyed. Children view their parents as people for the first time. Parents feel that their usefulness is being extended, and sometimes convince themselves that their support will be reciprocated in their old age. Both sides are kept in touch with the culture and values of another generation, and this can prove both useful and fulfilling. The pooling of financial, emotional and experiential resources can deliver unexpectedly high rewards. When they do fly the nest, the young may end up considerably better prepared; their parents may have become more worldly-wise.

Naturally, this new realm requires new rules. There's plenty of guidance available on what these should be. The kids must pay their way, and carry out specified household tasks. House rules should be negotiated. Private space must be respected. Neither side should nag, moan or carp; each should be encouraging and supportive. There, not too difficult, is it?

In spite of Jeff's stirring example, stay-at-home kids will still have their problems and create more for their parents. Yet if handled sensibly, they may also have their upside.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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