‘Lost generation’ talk is overblown

Posted: May 08, 2012

We parents of college students had better get the basements fixed up. According to Karl Rove and his political action group, chances are the kids will be hauling themselves and their ratty belongings back home after graduation.

American Crossroads is out with a political ad that shows President Obama dishing with celebrities and quaffing a beer, and notes that “after four years of a celebrity president,” half of college graduates can’t find jobs that fit their skills, student debt has topped $1 trillion, and — OMG! — 85 percent of recent college grads have been forced to move in with their parents.

I don’t think this ad will faze college students, who tend to be optimistic about overcoming the obstacles mentioned. But parents are a different story. Eighty-five percent moving back home? You can see a shudder moving through the land.

Parents can stand down, however. PolitiFact, the fact-checking service of the Tampa Bay Times, examined the claim and pronounced it false.

It turns out the 85 percent number is kind of a suburban myth. PolitiFact found it originated with a now-defunct consulting firm, Twentysomething Inc., whose managing director said it came from a poll done “many years ago” for an undisclosed client — not a claim you’d want to stake your reputation on.

A more accurate picture of the so-called boomerang generation is found in a recent report by the Pew Research Center, which did extensive polling based on census data. It found that 39 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 said they either lived with their parents or had moved back in temporarily in recent years. Up to age 30, college graduates were as likely as nongraduates to be living with the folks. Just after age 30, only 10 percent of college grads remained tied to their parents’ homes, compared with 22 percent of those without a college degree.

Rove’s group is correct that the number of young adults living with parents is up due to the economic slump. Pew found the highest incidence of such multigenerational households since the 1950s.

But does that really indicate a lost generation? Living with the parents after college isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I did so for a couple of years to save money while working an evening reporting shift for a small newspaper.

In the Pew report, most of the young people and parents surveyed reported being OK with cohabitation. Everybody pretty much got along, and both generations reported financial benefits. Studies have shown that the young adults of Generation Y mostly have good relationships with their baby-boomer parents.

The boomerang effect isn’t happening just because college graduates want to bond with their parents, of course. Long job searches and low pay for entry-level jobs have a lot to do with it, as does debt. On those points, Crossroads America hits a legitimate target.

But the specter of moving home with the parents isn’t really scaring anybody. My personal view is that graduates are better off living on their own, so they can achieve true independence and might learn how to cook. But I’m keeping my college sophomore’s room intact — just in case.

Barbara Shelly writes for the Kansas City Star.

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