Today's NY Times Magazine has a worrying article by Amy Davidson, "It's Official: The Boomerang Kids Won't Leave." At least, ! think it is worrying! But then that is the way I am - inclined to worry - a lot - about the dramatic changes that have happened in our society in my lifetime and the fate of the humane values such changes have undermined.
"Boomerang Kids," refers to the approximately 20% of people in their 20s and early 30s presently living with their parents and the some 60% who receive financial support from parents. This is, of course, a new phenomenon and reflects the impact of recession and economic instability, of declining job opportunities, and out-of-control college costs and consequent student debt. In 1968, Davidson notes, the majority of those in their 20s were independent, and the majority of them were married. "But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding." Her question is to what extent the boomerang phenomenon is "a sign, as it once was, of failure" or whether it might represent "a practical, long-term financial move."
Obviously in any given case, either could be possible. Davidson looks at several examples that suggest the latter interpretation. But, of course, there will always be people who will make the best of a bad situation and succeed. Rather the question ought to be, I think, what social, cultural, economic, and political arrangements and expectations work best for most people, for average people, who may not necessarily have the entrepreneurial wherewithal that some do. When she suggests that the boomerang phenomenon may "represent a much larger anxiety-provoking but also potentially thrilling economic evolution," the anxiety-prone, traditionalist, egalitarian in me wonders why it might be "thrilling" and immediately wants to ask "thrilling" for whom?
Davidson notes that childhood as we know it - and, by extension, young adulthood - "is a fairly recent economic innovation." The idea that what we are seeing now is in some sense the next step in this centuries-long development certainly rings true, but it leaves open the question how desirable this development may ultimately be.
Of course, it is true that the 30-year post-World War II boom - when "work life in America was especially benign and predictable," when the "gap between rich and poor shrank to its lowest level on record, and economic growth was widely shared" - that that is gone for good. Still, it is worth recalling that economic developments are not entirely inevitable and that much of this change has been the direct consequence of a chosen political policy path. As Davidson notes, the breakdown of the post-war boom was "assisted by changes in government policy - taxes were cut, welfare programs were eliminated - that further regarded the wealthy and removed support from the poor."
Anxiety about the staggering human cost to our society of the direction we have chosen to take these past several decades has recently resurfaced as at least the beginning of a serious debate about our increasingly separate and unequal society. that condemns the overwhelming majority to a life of economic stagnation and uncertainty - with all the human, moral, and cultural costs that inevitably accompany that.
I can appreciate the thrill these changes offer for those personally gifted and socially well situated to exploit them. But personally I am much more anxious about everyone else!