PARIS — Her work colleagues think she lives with a partner in a suburban house outside Paris. In reality, Catherine is staying in a small bedroom in her 72-year-old father’s apartment. At 47, this company nurse returned to the family nest six months after a breakup. “Nobody knows because I’m ashamed of living here at my age,” she says.
It’s common for young adults who are struggling post-education to find jobs in a weak economy, and we knew that some among this demographic tend to return to their family homes. But we are now discovering those aged 40 or more who go back to their parents’ after having gone through hard times.
The skyrocketing prices in real estate, the frequency of professional or personal crises, and frequent layoffs all have led to more common inter-generational households in French cities. Traditionally, this sort of thing has been mostly limited to rural areas. Far from the image of the adult sons or daughters who stayed with their parents to help with farming, more and more of these grey-haired “boomerang kids” are making their way back to the family nest, after years of independence.
Only a few fragmented pieces of data provide a slightly better understanding of this phenomenon. That’s because middle-aged people who live with their parents are often ashamed. Certainly, the ones we spoke were willing to talk only if they remained anonymous.
According to initial results of ongoing research, the French National Institute of Population Studies (INED) estimates that 4.4% of 40-year-old men and 3.2% of 50-year-old men live with their parents. For women, the numbers are 2.4% 40-years-olds and 1.9% of 50-year-olds.
“For the first time, these figures provide information about who lives with whom,” explains Catherine Bonvalet, INED’s head of research. “Even though we can’t isolate the number of people going back and forth to their parents’, we can think that they are an important part of the percentage.”
The Fondation Abbé Pierre, a French organization for the housing of disadvantaged people, estimates that 280,000 people over age 25 who are no longer students or recent graduates are forced to return to their parents’ or grandparents’ because they cannot afford to live on their own.
The need for support has shifted
Sociologist Serge Guérin, who has written several books on solidarity and senior citizens, says this growing phenomenon is very real and here to stay. “The crisis, but also fewer cultural differences between generations, have led to a situation where, if people are having problems, they will turn more easily to their relatives,” he explains. “Also, the age where we need material and/or psychological support has shifted. An entire age group, one in which we used to be considered ‘safe,’ has now become vulnerable.”
Philippe, now 60, returned to his family home five years ago. He is a former company manager whose life hit the skids after a series of health problems, a bankruptcy and a separation. Going back to his parents just happened naturally. He was financially ruined and without an alternate solution. The former senior executive says would have ended up “on the streets” otherwise.
He has since found a subsidized job, but Philippe realizes how lucky he was to have “these parents,” who, thanks to their comfortable financial situation and their love, “cocooned him when he hit rock bottom.” Though he cannot afford to leave their home, he says he wouldn’t leave now even if he could. His mother and father, now in their eighties, have become accustomed to his presence “and are reassured by it.” As a gesture of thanks, he says he will stay as long as they need him.
“It’s harder than we thought”
Beyond finances, returning to aging parents is often a way to relieve the pressure. “Family will usually judge you less, reassure you and spontaneously welcome you without asking too many questions,” Guérin says.
Nathalie, 64, a retired social worker who lives in Brittany, in northwestern France, welcomed back her 40-year-old son last year after he was laid off. In debt, separated from his wife and the father of three dependent children, her son needed help. It was “obvious,” Nathalie says, that he should live with her.
But the new living situation was uncomfortable for Nathalie and her new romantic partner, she says, adding that she was prepared to pay for a small apartment for her son if the situation continued too long.
“It’s harder than we thought,” says Jean-Bernard, who has sheltered his 35-year-old unemployed son in his house near the town of Laval since November 2013. His son has returned to his childhood bedroom. A former metalworking technician, this retired 64-year-old and his wife, a nursing aide, are happy to help but fear their son could lose his ambition.
“We are both reassured to see him with us at home because he wouldn’t be able to live in a dignified way with his benefits, but at the same time we are scared he might lose the habit of sorting things out alone,” Jean-Bernard admits.
Beyond the additional expenses that come with the presence of an extra person, retired parents often have trouble living with the loss of the autonomy they gain when a child leaves home. Many of these parents are still relatively young and active, and want to enjoy everyday life unencumbered.
The situation is equally difficult for the children, who suffer from loss of pride and confidence. “Since I came back to my mother’s, I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to hear her asking about my schedule, insisting that I wrap up warm, have another serving of food,” says Agnès, a 53-year-old part-time singing teacher. “My 82-year-old mother has trouble understanding I’m not a little girl anymore. At the same time, I’m grateful to her for letting me live here.”
Catherine, the 47-year-old nurse, has found herself in an equally regressive circumstance. “The normal situation is to live at your own place and visit your parents from time to time,” she says, “not to have dinner every evening with your 72-year-old father.”