In York County and elsewhere, ‘Boomerang’ kids extend their childhood

Originally published on Page A1 of the York Daily Record/Sunday News on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011.

Daily Record/Sunday News

York, PA – A young artist flaunts a recent masterpiece, asking a question high school teacher Katlyn Wolfgang hasn’t quite figured out how to answer:

“Why don’t you take this and hang it in your apartment, Miss Wolfgang?”

The 25-year-old Central York art instructor shoots back a scripted response:

“Do you think I ever have any empty walls?”

She wants to be respected. That’s why they aren’t allowed to know. The issue isn’t the walls. It’s who she shares them with.

“I don’t ever tell my students I still live at home,” she said. “I want them to see me as an individual — as someone — a person on my own, not someone who is still with her parents.”

In January 2009, the Millersville University senior moved back into her parents’ West Manchester Township home to student-teach at the school where she now works full time. Two years later, she’s in no rush to leave.

Thousands of others like her live and breathe among us, snagging free room and board, laying low and plotting their next move.

Take, for example, Matthew Troup, a 28-year-old Spring Garden Township website developer who has lived with his parents, for the most part, since high school graduation.

But the clock ticks for Troup. In July, he proposed to his girlfriend, Rachel, 20, of Seven Valleys. By Feb. 18 — their wedding day — he hopes to carry his new bride over the threshold of their very own house.

“She said I must get a house. We’ll get a house,” he said. “It’s a ‘we’ thing now.”

Just when we thought we knew our neighbors and friends, co-workers and clients, they skittishly confess to shacking up with “the ‘rents.”

Meet the boomerang kids — a species of adult homo sapien surviving on home-cooked meals at a private, all-inclusive resort where family ties afford the finer things in life, from laundry service to free housekeeping.

And they’re multiplying. About 21.8 million households are “doubled up,” containing an adult that is not a student or spouse, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released this month. Boomerang kids, ages 25 to 34, account for the extra adults in more than half of those homes, which have increased by 2 million since 2007.

The stigma of slackerdom attached to living in mom and pop’s basement is slipping away, leaving a culture lacking independence — a characteristic evident in York College’s annual “professionalism” survey focusing on hiring companies’ perspectives on recent college graduates, said David Polk, behavioral science professor.

“The idea of being 25, living at home with my mom and dad, and not knowing your direction has become culturally acceptable,” he said. “What happens to the motivation? You’re back home. Your parents are taking care of you. You can remain a child until you’re 30.”

Blame them for placing undue stress on an aging generation. Blame them for dragging down consumer spending. Blame them for the country’s backlog of unsold homes, a factor in spiraling real estate prices.

All are potential results, though difficult to quantify, of the boomerang boom, Polk said.

“Yes, (boomerang kids) are saving money, which may lead to buying a house later,” Polk said. “But as far as stimulating the economy right now, that’s not happening.”

The federal government’s $8,000 first-time homebuyer credit tempted Wolfgang after she graduated from Millersville University in May 2009.

She felt fortunate, having landed a part-time job at Central York.

“At that point, I didn’t care,” she said. “It was whatever job I could get. School districts are cutting art left and right. A lot of my friends can’t even get interviews because the positions don’t even exist anymore.”

In the meantime, she lived at home and worked as a program director for the York County YMCA’s Camp Spirit. Then, just before school started, the district upgraded her to a full-time position.

In early 2010, she began looking for homes just before her father, Tom, was laid off from York-based Metso Minerals. He took another job in Pittsburgh for the next nine months, returning home only on weekends.

Wolfgang stayed at home to help her mother, Donna, a West York Area School District teacher’s aide. Their already close bond grew stronger.

“The relationships that we missed out on in high school because I was too cool to hang out with my parents — that kind of stuff — I’m able to enjoy now,” she said. “I enjoy their company.”

That wouldn’t surprise Polk, who believes boomerang kids restore the family structure.

In some cases, the arrangement saves dysfunctional marriages bound for divorce, most common at anniversaries eight and 25, he said.

“At year 25, those people are usually empty nesters. They’ve got dinners where people stare at each other blankly, like, ‘Why are we still together?'” he said. “Now, suddenly, the child — the focal point for the last 25 years — is back.”

Wolfgang had another house-hunting spurt again this past January. It quickly fizzled. She didn’t like what she saw — cookie cutter townhomes and badly beaten fixer-uppers.

The situation never burdened her parents, who say they like being able to help their daughter.

“I was upset she was moving,” Donna said. “I knew what she was looking at to buy was something she wouldn’t be happy with. I didn’t want to see her put herself in that position if she didn’t have to.”

Renting was always out of the question. Apartments, Wolfgang said, seem stuffy, a crimp on her creative style.

“Also, knowing I’m not seeing that money after I’m paying my rent — that bothered me, too,” she added.

Instead, she continues to deposit $800 to $1,000 each month — the amount she estimates she’d spend on rent — into a growing savings account to put toward a house someday.

“With the rest — because I don’t have cable bills or electric bills — I’m able to go out and buy the new outfit, if I want the new outfit,” she said. “I’m able to go to Rita’s every night if I want to, not that I do, obviously, or I wouldn’t be able to fit into my clothes.”

In July, she vacationed to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with friends. It’s one of many things she might have missed out on if she had a place of her own, she said.

That’s why there are no plans to leave the nest just yet.

“This works,” she said. “It’s not broken. It works. More days I’m happy that I’m here than I am wishing I was somewhere else.”

Whether it’s photography, workouts at Planet Fitness, or gatherings with her book club, the Literary Winos of York, everything is done in the midst of mom, dad and Cookie the cocker spaniel.

But “it’s never, ‘Can I go?'” she said. “There’s no asking permission.”

Troup didn’t go to college — a factor that’s made his rise to independence a self-taught journey.

“When you don’t have that college degree to say, ‘Hey, I know this,’ it’s really hard,” he said. “I was kind of told I’d never really amount to anything.”

After graduating from York Suburban High School in 2002, he did anything that paid, from installing granite countertops to changing oil to trimming trees, spending his spare time applying for Web development positions.

In 2008, he got his foot in the door as an entry level content manager for an e-commerce website in Coatesville, he said.

That year, he moved to a Red Lion house with two other men, splitting utility bills and $1,250 per month on rent.

At the time, Troup might have been a “false start” — a type of boomerang kid that leaves the nest abruptly, realizing later it wasn’t the best move, said Manchester Township life coach Julie Lichty, sometimes hired by parents to get adult children on their feet.

“Maybe they don’t know what they’re looking for,” she said. “Maybe they’re jumping into things because someone opens a door for them, and they jump into it because it’s a job.”

In Troup’s case, his roommates were moving on. One was getting married. After a year of bills, rent and grocery shopping, he decided to move home and save for his own business.

At the beginning of 2010, he conceived Volo Productions to supplement his full-time Web design job at Ritter Insurance in Harrisburg. So far, his personal clients include Liquid Hero Brewing Company, Hayman Studios and York Young Professionals — the networking outlet that’s been a motivator since he joined in 2010.

“I just thought — here’s the goals I want to reach, so I’m going to stay (at home) a little longer until I meet those goals,” he said.

But a little longer can turn into too long for some boomerang adults, plagued by inertia and convenience.

“It really starts to raise the question, is this person ever going to be motivated enough to make it on their own?” Lichty said. “What will be the prompt? What will be the motivation?”

For Troup, there’s no question: it’s his fiancée Rachel.

He barely has time to chat between work, his business and wedding planning. They’ll start looking to buy a house and move out this winter, he said.

“I’m excited to move out,” he said. “It’s the next big thing to do. It’s the next step.”

A note to parents: don’t turn that bedroom into a den just yet.

Ready or not, your not-so-little ones could be returning home.

Backing recent Census reports, a 2009 Pew Research Center study showed 11 percent of adults 18 or older were living with Mom and Dad.

“Even when the economy is OK, we see even more young people up to the age of 30 living at home with their parents,” Polk said. “I think the maturation process among young people has gotten prolonged.”

At age 63, he’s from a different era. Forty years ago, the aspiring professor finished his master’s degree at Kent State and didn’t look back.

“I announced I was going to a place called York,” he said. “I left. That was the end of it. I was gone. Nowadays, that’s probably the exception.”

That in mind, he asks his students each semester a trick question: “At what age are you an adult in our society?”

Most answer 18 or 21.

Polk just stares at them pointedly.


One response to “In York County and elsewhere, ‘Boomerang’ kids extend their childhood

  1. Pingback: In other news … Lauren wins something finally | BY LAUREN BOYER

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