The pandemic has led to a huge uplift in the number of so-called “Boomerang kids” - adult children who had previously moved out and been living apart from their parents, who have moved back in with their families, either due to university courses moving online or due to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
But, while in the West living with your parents as an adult has traditionally been seen as a mark of irresponsibility or laziness, in many other cultures it is often seen as quite the opposite – a sign of respect, and a willingness to be involved with and contribute to the lives of your older relatives.
With such markedly different perspectives on the same living arrangement, which one is correct? How does co-habitation affect the relationship between parents and their grown-up children? And is there a ‘right’ age at which kids should move out?
Boomers and Boomerang kids
When the pandemic hit, a lot of people had to make some tough decisions about their living arrangements. For many young adults, this meant relinquishing their independent lives (and expensive rents or temporarily defunct college campuses) and moving back in to live with their parents – circling back, like a boomerang, to the same location that they started from.
This has been the case for Yuji, the son of Art Los Banos, a Filipino corporate communications manager in Dubai. According to Los Banos, the culture in the Philippines is such that children of families living in Metro Manila and other cities tend to stay with their parents while studying and working, until they get married and move out. “After all, the Filipino family has a close-knit culture,” says Los Banos, who is in his 50s.
However, when Los Banos’ son Yuji opted to go to the Philippines to study at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City in 2017, he chose to live independently rather than in the family town house. But since his dorm shut down permanently after the lockdown was declared, Yuji has “boomeranged” back to be with family in the Philippines, and is now living with his aunt and uncle – something that has come as a comfort to his parents. “It is good for our son to have a social support system as living alone can really be mentally challenging this pandemic both for him and even us, parents, as we worry about his health and safety,” says Los Banos.
Not a new phenomenon
For Western cultures like the US, this so-called boomerang generation has more negative connotations. A September 2020 study from the US Pew Research Centre found that 52% of 18 to 29-year-olds were living with their parents, surpassing the previous peak that was reached during the Great Depression era. But while many American news outlets saw this statistic as a worrying sign of pandemic-related regression, it’s actually the continuation of a trend that has been around for many years.
“Even 30 years ago, adulthood – typically marked by a stable job, a long-term partnership and financial independence – was coming later than it had in the past,” Jeffrey Arnett Senior Research Scholar, Department of Psychology, Clark University, told The Conversation. The number of young adults living at home with their parents in the US has actually been rising steadily since hitting a low of 29% in 1960, says Arnett. “The main reason for the rise is that more and more young people continued their education into their 20s as the economy shifted from manufacturing to information and technology. When they’re enrolled in school, most don’t make enough money to live independently.”
As well as financial reasons, some cultural commentators point to a general shift in attitudes by parents. With the rise of attachment parenting and helicopter-style parenting in the West, parents have become more involved in their children’s lives, meaning that many of them are happy to have their adult children live with them longer.
The stigma of living with your parents
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a stigma attached to it for some. In Western media and films, there is the concept of the overgrown ‘kidult’, who remains living with his or her parents beyond the point of being welcome, treating the house like a hotel and failing to reach emotional maturity.
“There definitely is a bit of a stigma in the West about adult children living with their parents,” says 27-year-old Rebekah Heaney, a professional writer who moved to Dubai to live with her parents after finishing university in the UK, and who continues to live with them now that they have returned to the UK after four years of UAE expat life.
“But I think it is starting to change,” she says. “For the Millennial generation, at least in the UK and the US, it is really difficult for young people to get on the property ladder. The only way is if you are part of a couple where you’re doubling your financial earnings so you can save enough for a deposit, or if you have family that you can live with and can save in the meantime. So I think people are trying to shake off that feeling of it being a permanent childhood. If it’s for a greater goal, people in the West are becoming more accepting of it.”
This is in stark contrast to the environment Rebekah encountered while living in the UAE, however. “Dubai changed my perspective on it because there were so many people there my age in the South Asian and Arab communities who found it completely normal. And I thought - ‘yes it is normal, I don’t see why the West is so weird about it’. My Western friends in Dubai would even envy me for living with my parents; while theirs were many miles away in another country, I would be going home to a cooked meal from my mum.
“I think if you have a good relationship with your parents and if they are a big part of your lives then there are very few reasons why you wouldn’t want to do it. The only way it might be unhealthy is if anyone expects there to be a continuation of the relationship that you had when you were a child compared to when you are an adult.”
A long-held tradition
For Dubai-based Egyptian Mariam Abdel Hadi, 29, staying home with her parents into early and mid-adulthood is perfectly normal – even preferable and expected in her culture. “There was never a question of whether or not I would move out,” says UAE-based 29-year-old Mariam Abdel Hadi from Egypt. “We stay at home around our families until we meet someone and get married. If I really wanted to, I guess I could move out, but there’s no reason to. I like seeing my siblings and cooking with my mum on the weekends. It’s not unusual.”
This is also the case in Indian families, says Nisha Thakkar, a marketing manager from India who lived with her parents in Dubai until moving out when she got married in her late twenties. “In Indian families it is a common tradition for adult children to live with their parents. It’s not perceived as a negative thing but seen as taking over the responsibilities of their parents and reducing their burden. However in recent years, Indians have been increasingly adopting the Western culture and moving out to live separately.”
For some children, being expected to live with their parents as an adult can feel oppressive. “To be honest, I grew up hating the societal expectation that I couldn’t move out unless I was married,” says Palestinian Engie Salah El Din, 31. “I really just wanted to leave home and not be around my family - they were always way too involved in my business.”
But after getting married and moving out, Engie says her perspective has changed. “Now I come back home and all I want to do is be in my old room and be around my parents. So in a way, I do miss being in the same home as them.”
There are both positives and negatives to the traditional arrangement, says Nisha. “On the positive side you respect and value your elders and support them in their old age. On the negative side you’re always taken care of and can become reliant on your parents. Some families find the right balance and are still able to encourage their kids to be self-sufficient and fully independent while also valuing their traditional beliefs and supporting their parents.”
'Parents should encourage kids to fly the nest'
But not all parents feel the same way. Indian mum, Alka Malik, 51, an entrepreneur based in Dubai, feels strongly that children should be given the freedom to grow as an individual. She says she has tried to inculcate these values of independence in her children – daughter Anya, 23 and son Aryan, 20. Since Anya graduated in Maths and Economics from Yale University a year ago, she pays her own bills and is independently leading her life. “That is the way it should be,” says Alka. “My daughter got a job while she was finishing college. She interned after her third year at Credit Suisse in New York and she got her final placement there itself. We paid for her return ticket that summer for her to return to UAE. And that was it. She has been on her own since then.”
Alka said she and her husband Sumit have left their children to learn independently right from when they were young. “I was tracking my children’s academics only until they were in Grade 3. Since then they have studied independently. This has also taught them to learn – whether academics or life’s lessons on their own. I am confident today both my children can manage life on their own. And this is important for children to know from their parents. As that will instil a lot of confidence in them.”
British life coach Laura Everest, mother of son George, 20, agrees. George had just qualified as a pilot when the pandemic hit and, with no good job prospects in the aviation sector, he wrote a book and launched a podcast connecting people in the aviation business, both titled ‘Pilot Pals’ - all while also working fulltime to remain financially independent. Laura believes that her parenting, informed by her role as a life coach, contributed to his dynamism. “I train people to recognise their unique resources. I help people understand their unique quality is for their personal success. This is what I have done with George."
“As parents we need to let our children fly from the nest," adds Laura. "Let them find their wings and fly. Only when they discover themselves, correct their mistakes will they come out as mature, well-rounded individuals.”
A prolonged adolescence
Dr Vassiliki Simoglou, clinical psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centrein Dubai, has some concerns about the growing trend of adult children living with their parents. “Co-habitation after a certain age perpetuates the dependency of the child on their parents, at an age where separation and individuation are considered to be long achieved,” she says.
“It can give rise to conflicts and power struggles whenever the child defies or challenges the parental living arrangements, rules or precepts.”
Although this living arrangement can seem to offer financial stability and emotional support for the child, it can backfire: “This can quickly turn into a false sense of emotional and financial security, as the need for the child to work, start a family or have a social life of their own are not properly being addressed and are postponed.”
It can also be unhealthy for parents too, says Dr Simoglou “It can give the parents an illusion of control over the child’s life choices, and can make them feel responsible for their child’s wellbeing. Depending on the parents’ personality, it can be a source of pleasure or pressure, and it can also contribute to a feeling of going back in time: the younger the child is perceived, the younger the parents feel, negating the effects of time irrevocably passing by.”
The delay of an adult child moving out to live on his or her own can lead to a prolonged adolescence, warns Dr Simoglou. “The end of adolescence is primarily marked by the emerging adult’s autonomous separation from his or her parents. Adolescence can be indeed interminable when the child refuses to let go of their parents’ influence on them, the need for their love and validation, and remains trapped in the space in-between adulthood and childhood.
Although she says there is no 'right' age at which adult children should leave hom, she recommends independent living if possible. “If there is a choice, and there aren’t any financial or cultural constraints, it can be beneficial for a young adult, for example after graduation, to resist the urge of the convenience to move back in with their parents, and live independently. This can allow them to turn towards their own generation, create a routine that works with their emerging professional life, and build meaningful relationships of their own.”
The multigenerational household
While some may have their doubts, for many parents in the UAE a multigenerational household has lots of benefits.
Seyyed Llata, a senior designer from Mexico working in Dubai and the father of a 22-year-old from his first marriage and a 7-year-old from his second marriage, says he is grateful that his older son is living with the family in the UAE again after completing his nursing training abroad. “I am thankful I have a second chance to help him find balance as a young adult,” says Seyyed. “We are very comfortable with each other, and I don't have restrictions for him at home when it comes to things like girlfriends or having a drink.”
However, if his older son, Dario, does something that goes against the family social norms, they have a discussion, he adds: “We talk about it and negotiate it - he is after all an adult and we deal on equal terms, but it is usually about noise late at night on weekdays. In general we have great time together. Although we can get annoyed or even angry, we don't argue. Kids aren't servants that are obliged to be obedient - that is draconian. We find a middle ground.”
Seyyed says that although Mexican culture used to be quite traditional about daughters, expecting them to stay at home until marriage, today things have largely relaxed for both boys and girls of Dario’s generation, so if a child is economically independent and wants to move out they will usually be able to.
For Seyyed’s family, the multigenerational household comes with many benefits. He says that having another adult around the house is a great support to him, especially when it comes to the care of Dario’s younger brother, Luca. “We have a motto at home: 'together we hunt', it is because we used to go hunting together back in Mexico, but also means we work as a team, a clan. We've learnt that we can join efforts on big goals.”
As well as being able to guide, protect and take care of his older son’s physical and mental health, Seyyed in turn gets emotional support and extra adult company.
This has been 27-year-old British writer Rebekah Heaney’s experience too. “Having a multigenerational household brings things emotionally to the family dynamic,” she says.
As well as contributing to the household financially and practically in terms of cooking and other chores, she is also there for her parents as another person to spend time with. “It’s about harmonising all the different personalities in the space.”
Finding a balance
Co-habitation may not work in every household or culture, concedes Rebekah Heaney. “You need a relationship where the parents accept that when the child comes back to their house as an adult, things aren’t going to be the same as when they were living in their house as a child. If both parties can’t adapt to that I don’t think it’s going to go well.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Simoglou of Thrive Wellbeing Centre advises certain boundaries or house rules that can be applied for those families whose co-habitation is necessary. “Paying rent (even a symbolic amount if the grown-up child isn’t financially stable), participating in the housework, running errands and doing chores as they would were they living on their own are all ways to mitigate the effects of living under the parents’ wings and being responsible for themselves.”
Respecting each other’s privacy is another key boundary, she adds. “Not just respecting personal space and time, but also an effort to avoid interfering in each other’s life choices. In this way, independence can be achieved in a symbolic way, preparing both the child and the parents to live separately in reality in the future.”
For Rebekah, living with her parents has been an invaluable investment of time. She says: “You never know how long you have with your parents, so if you are close to them and enjoy spending time with them, those years when you’re no longer requiring parenting the way you did when you were younger are so precious.”
Since Rebekah’s mother was diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer this March, this has become all the more true. “Maximising your time together and soaking up all the life lessons you can and all the love that you can whilst they are around can only be a positive thing.”
For 30-year-old Yousra Zaki, living with her parents in the UAE is normal and has a lot of benefits:
"This is the Arab world, so when it comes to your children, things aren’t black and white. They are very grey. There are no strict rules of having to move out at a certain age, and they will never stop wanting to take care of you.
"It’s not like in Canada or America where your kids have to leave home when they turn 18. I never really understood how parents could do that. It’s also something I’ve seen a lot in movies. Parents roll their eyes and wish that their kids could go away for college so they can have peace in the house again and save their money.
"Anyway, I spent half of my adult life living alone and the other half, the latter half, living with my parents. It’s not unusual. In fact, almost my entire friend group lives with their parents unless their parents are based in another emirate and they need to be in Dubai for work, that’s when they live alone. And they don’t love it as much as they thought they would.
"Many of my friends who live alone tend to envy my living situation. Of course, they assume I live rent-free and come home to a home-cooked meal every day, but my parents have full-time jobs, so no one really has the time to cook a warm meal every night. I still take care of things myself.
I also contribute to rent every month, the same amount I would pay if I had a one-bedroom apartment, but with a combination of all our resources, we get to live in a beautiful beachfront villa in Jumeirah.
"And the best part is, I get to enjoy life with my parents while we are both adults. It’s different from when you are a child. They look at you different, treat you different. The age at which you can finally be friends with your parents, is the age many people chose to leave their homes.
"I am lucky to have parents who understand that I am not their child anymore. They never asked me where I am going, what I am wearing or what time I am coming back. My mom and I can share clothes, so we both have double the closets and my dad and I love cooking amazing meals together. They are retiring soon, and will probably move to Cairo while I will live alone here, so that time will come eventually. But for now, I am enjoying spending all that time together."
- Yousra Zaki