I am perhaps the only person I know who was a child in the same house in which his father was a child, the house my grandfather built after the war. There is something oddly un-American-in-the-21st-century about the idea of generations staying in the same place and not moving for purposes of jobs or better opportunities. Move-up, move-on, better yourself, improve your lot in life, generation to generation – this is the mantra that we have been taught. My father runs a successful business; my parents could live in a house three times this size, but here they still are, sixty years later.
The house was built on the crown of what once was an empty hill facing the Rocky Mountains on the front range of Colorado. The neighborhood grew up around it, and trees were planted, yards cultivated, and roads paved running to and from the place. The settlers’ graveyard at the end of our lane that my father snuck into as a child was bulldozed and replaced by a park where I played football. Power lines went up, and sheds and houses that now obscure our view of the mountains. But the house is the same. These rooms have new carpet and furniture, but my father wandered through these spaces as a child and so did I. Of course, he still lives here, and I left home eight years ago and haven’t spent more than a few weeks here since. Until this summer, when I came back home to live for a while.
A recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “What is it About 20 Somethings?” examines the phenomenon exemplified by my own situation. It seems there is a recent trend among people in their 20’s who postpone adulthood in favor of a prolonged period of adolescence. The article’s author, Robin Marantz Henig, cites five markers that sociologists have traditionally used to measure when a person transitions from youth into adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. According to the article, 20-somethings in the United States these days have somehow gotten off track and are delaying or completely skipping one or several of these transitional steps toward adulthood. She argues that our society is,
built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course.
Henig then explores the possible causes and consequences of this new development – our generation’s failure to launch, as it were – by tracking the development of a term being used by psychologists these days called “emerging adulthood.” She concludes that, “we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.”
Perhaps it is because of my current situation – returning to my parents’ home at the age of 27, unmarried, childless, and still waiting to complete my graduate degree and start my career – that I take issue with Ms. Henig’s article. Both with its premise and its conclusions. Or perhaps it is because she considers a very narrow context and bases her arguments on one specific set of data.
Henig is a science writer who bases most of the article on data culled by psychologists from studies on present day college students and recent graduates. Her approach is distinctly one-dimensional, seeking to explain a broad sociological occurrence based on theories of emotional and brain development alone. Her argument is also clearly contemporary and even more clearly the product of an American from the baby boom generation. It contemplates neither our place in history nor our place in the world.
It is true that today’s young people do not follow the trend of our parents’ generation, the baby boom generation, which is also Henig’s generation. A recent census bureau report revealed that 40 million Americans move to a new place every year. The overwhelming majority cited the reason for their move as wanting to live in a bigger house, a more desirable neighborhood or getting a better job. The percentage of people moving to different states rather than staying nearby also jumped dramatically from a similar survey done ten years ago. It seems that homeowners, the majority of whom are of Henig’s generation, do not like to stay put. There are nicer houses and superior jobs out there. Baby boomers have indeed followed the progression: move away, get married, get a job. Get on with your life.
But are these standards, the ones set by the baby boom generation, normal? For the majority of human history, families have tended to stay in the same place. If you were male, you could reliably assume that your vocation would be the same as your father’s, the same as his father’s. If you were raised by farmers, you would likely be a farmer; if your father was a silversmith, he would probably teach you his trade. Children became partners and eventually took over the family business. Shepherds raised shepherds, kings raised kings. Indeed, surnames came about in the English language in order to identify a family with a trade (the names Miller and Smith, for example) or perhaps even to identify you directly with your parents (the names Johnson, Thomson, McDonald).
The American experiment changed much of this. People are able to make a career for themselves based on their interests or desires, rather than who their parents were. We are more likely in this country than in most to judge you by what you do rather than by who you know (but by no means is this always the case). Also, opportunities for women and ethnic and religious minorities are much greater now than ever before – a direct result of the breakdown of the traditional social structure.
Still, for most of American history people tended to stay close to home, to follow the paths of their fathers. It was not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century to have three or even four generations of a family living under one roof. Grandparents were seen as essential to the raising of their children’s children. Neighbors and aunts and uncles all were a part of the process. You grew up in a community that knew you, knew your family, knew your history, the traits and the habits coded in your blood. They knew you in ways you didn’t know yourself. When my father visits the farm in Missouri where my grandfather grew up, the people in town call him Willis, my grandfather’s father’s name, because they see the family in my father’s face.
This mostly changed within the past fifty years. People do not tend to stay in the same job or city for very long. Society has shifted to the expectations listed by Henig – grow up, get a job, move away, get on with your life.
Now families become uprooted. There are marriages, divorces, second marriages, step-siblings, single parents. Grandparents are hidden away in homes for the elderly. Children are raised in daycares or after school programs. By no means am I criticizing our present situation or lamenting the loss of the “good old days” that I was never around to experience. I am simply saying that the ways families relate to one another in this country in this age are different from what they have been historically, different from what still takes place in most of the rest of the world. Henig thinks it strange that my generation is at a loss for our place in society and in our families. I would think it strange were it not so. Only a single generation has led the type of life Henig cites as normal. Those of my generation are trying to make our way in a world no one has prepared us for.
In the end, though, I am not convinced any of this is so bad. What does it mean that we have a generation of people returning home? Perhaps it means that we are rediscovering the odd and wonderful institution that is family. Perhaps my generation is accidentally rediscovering something meaningful by stepping off society’s ladder and returning to live with our parents, unmarried and unable to find our way in the world.
The Pulitzer Prize- winning author Marilynne Robinson writes a good deal on the theme of people returning home to their families, even perhaps as failures or for reasons they did not choose. In her essay “Family,” she writes,
Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family, and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life. This is more human and beautiful, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries. Perhaps it is the calling of some families to console, because intractable grief is visited upon them. And perhaps measures of the success of families that exclude this work from consideration, or even see it as failure, are very foolish and misleading.
As she concludes, “Maybe the saddest family, properly understood is the miracle of solace.”
And so here I sit, at my grandmother’s desk where I studied algebra when I was 13. I find it sadly ironic that I am defending staying near your family, returning home, as I have spent the past 8 years living on America’s coasts or abroad – far from this house and these mountains. Indeed, in two weeks I will leave for a year in India, and will miss the birth of my first nephew and his first year of life. I am among the confused and wandering of my generation. The difference between my understanding and Henig’s is my knowledge that my parents would never see me as unwelcome in their home, never see my coming back to them as failure, or failure to launch, even if it was. There would be no calculation or proportion in their welcome, which is perhaps one reason they stayed in this house, in this city all these years. These rooms, where my grandmother sang my father to sleep – the same songs my mother sang to my brother and me, that she will sing to my nephew in the years that come. The holiness of the generations passing through this old house. And me, coming back and seeing it all again for the first time in so many years. I assume other 20-somethings who return home are also reminded. Perhaps this is the beginning of finding our way.