Letters to the Editor

Some Peter Pans Can't Help it

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.

Parents nationwide are shipping freshmen off to college, and their minds are racing. Think of all the things that the abruptly unoccupied bedroom could be used for now! A library, a study, an office, maybe a guest room. But don't reach just yet for that roll of lavender wallpaper to entomb the stuck-tight concert posters. There's a good chance your most frequent guest will be that kid of yours. Because multi-generational households -- demographic jargon for "He's baaack!" -- are becoming more common.

A couple of years ago we heard all about Peter Pan syndrome, the pop-psych term used to describe young adults stuck in adolescence. Peter Pans had problems accepting responsibility and criticism, didn't fare well in the job market, and could normally be found playing "Halo" in the den. Back then, the alleged culprit was over-protective parenting.

But with the unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, it's just as likely that a lackluster job market -- and not an idyllic childhood with way too much emphasis on self-esteem -- is to blame for your son or daughter's untimely homecoming.

Slate reports that the situation has grown grim in Japan, where some young-to-middle-age adults chose to not report the deaths of their parents (one family secretly mummified Grandpa instead) in order to keep collecting the corpses' pension checks. For these sons and daughters, living with their parents was a necessity. They entered the job market during the 1990s, a time of deflation in Japan known as "The Lost Decade." These workers are accordingly called "The Lost Generation" or, more scornfully, "parasite singles." You can't parent an adolescent or 20-something today and not wonder whether a similar problem will manifest itself here. In your house.

Then again, "problem" may be the wrong word. Multi-generational homes used to be common in this country -- often treasured for the bonds between Mama and her grandchildren down the hall. In 1940, nearly one-fourth of American homes were multi-generational, according to the Pew Research Center. And though that number declined until 1980, it has been on the rise ever since. In 2008, 49 million Americans, 16.1 percent of the population, lived in multi-generational homes. The recession boosted the number of these households by 2.6 million from 2007 to 2008, Pew found. To get a sense of 2009 and 2010, look up and down your street.

We won't judge those young people returning home -- provided they aren't murdering their parents and hiding them under the floorboards for the Social Security checks. Economic research shows that people who enter the work force during a recession tend to make less money during their careers. These young folks had no say in when they were born, and now they may be paying their dues for many years. It's hard to begrudge them their childhood bedrooms while they scour the job market.

Those plans for the new office may have to be put on hold, sure, but this could be fun -- a variation on "You can't take it with you, at least until you leave." Just remember, parents, that free rent doesn't have to be free: Who'll clean the rain gutters in return for shelter and food? Who'll bathe Fido after he rolls in cold November mud? Who'll be up at 6 a.m., shoveling snow, so the neighbor kids can walk to school? And need we even mention who gets final say in disputes over what to watch on TV?