CHICAGO -- When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah ...
The caps and gowns have been used and returned, yet many Baby Boomers are finding that the commencement to their grown-up kids' life away from home has been put off indefinitely.
In a development that would have repulsed many Boomers in the generation gap days of their youth, returning to the nest -- or not leaving it -- is becoming increasingly commonplace.
A weaker economy and shrinking job market appear to have accelerated the trend and produced more of what American Demographics magazine calls "boomerangers."
This year, about 670,000 or 56 percent of the college Class of 2001 plan to live with their parents for some period of time, according to a March poll by JobTrak.com, a job listing and resume database.
Sociologists and other experts say that besides the financial reasons behind the graduates' decision, Boomers themselves -- those turning ages 37-55 this year -- are encouraging the trend.
"The negative thing about moving home has really been reversed," says trend consultant and author Faith Popcorn, who heads the marketing consultancy BrainReserve. "A lot of parents have a best-friend relationship with their kids.
"I think Baby Boomer parents really have gotten the idea that home is fun and casual, and they never wanted their kids to leave in the first place."
As the father of a terrific 19-year-old son who's too far from home, this reporter's reaction to this trend still has to be: They must be nuts.
But what Boomer wouldn't be flattered by having done such a fine job of parenthood that your kids can't get enough of it (along with your fully stocked fridge)?
The financial security of the most prosperous generation ever and their bigger houses have made this once-unthinkable living arrangement much more appealing to both sides.
Phoenix architect Ward Simpson and his wife have first-hand knowledge of what might be called the "Echo Boomerang." Daughter Carrie, 24, and twin sons Joshua and Andrew, 23, keep going away and moving back, going away and moving back.
"Most parents complain that their children never visit them, but mine never leave," jokes Simpson, 49.
For the younger Simpsons, there's little uncomfortable about still being at home -- it makes sense financially and lots of their friends have similar situations.
"They've got a pool and my mom's stocks to trade, so it's a pretty good deal," says Josh, who graduated in the spring from Arizona State. "My dad likes it -- we get to play golf and I do yard work."
A year older, Carrie sounds slightly more guilty about constantly coming home after working in a variety of jobs elsewhere: "In the next few years we will have to break this vicious cycle."
But living solo has proven a lot more difficult, she says, with entry-level jobs paying "pennies" and apartment rentals so expensive it's nearly impossible to live without a roommate.
Like many other Boomer dads and moms, Ward is sympathetic. While college returnees may put unexpected financial burdens on some parents, he makes enough to cover the extra kid costs and finds it "kind of fun" when they come back.
"We have always stressed to them the opportunity to move back in as a way to save money," he says. "It seems to me it's the way humankind evolved, with extended families."
The moving-back trend first emerged in the 1980s before flattening out in the 1990s. Now it is on the increase again following the dot-com crash and with the first wave of Baby Boomers' 71 million children reaching adulthood.
This year's 1.2 million college grads are facing what may be the toughest market for entry-level job seekers in a decade, says John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
"Young people are wanting some sort of security blanket and they haven't known hard times," says Amanda Freeman, research director for Youth Intelligence, a New York-based market research and consulting firm. "It's a practicality issue, it's a comfort issue, and they are getting a bit nervous about the economy."
Frances Goldscheider, Brown University professor of sociology, has been asking her students for years if they might return home to live. When she first posed the question in the '80s, she relates, they'd look at her as if she were crazy. Now they say it could make sense.
"There's no question that when the economy tightens up, kids are more likely to come home or less likely to leave," says Goldscheider, author of Changing Transition to Adulthood.
The trend may fade when boom times return, but it's unlikely to go away. The U.S. Census shows 18 million Americans ages 18 to 34 live with their parents -- a group now drawing attention from marketers because it has lots of disposable income and is growing steadily.
"A lot of people say that when their kids graduate they're going to move and not leave a forwarding address," says Simpson. "But I suspect they don't mean it."
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