On their first date, Mike Englisch and Kelly Magnin started with a classic icebreaker - where do you live?
Englisch, 24, wondered if Magnin, 23, would find his answer a turnoff. It turned out that Magnin was worried about exactly the same thing. "One of us said, 'I live at home with my parents,' " says Englisch, "and there was that awkward moment of silence before the other one was like, 'Oh, I do, too.' "
It may not be the most glamorous of digs, but more twentysomethings may look to Mom and Dad for shelter during the recession. Like Englisch and Magnin, young people are fleeing the bachelor pads, post-college flophouses, and six-bedroom communes that have defined young adulthood over the last generation. Instead, they're turning to the mother of all cheap housing options.
But the prospect of trading in their Friends lifestyle for something along the lines of All in the Family doesn't designate severe uncoolness anymore. While the dynamics aren't ideal, the concept is no longer shameful, and those who do it are no longer punchlines to lame jokes.
"There used to be a great deal of stigma attached to the decision to move back home. That doesn't necessarily exist anymore," says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., a King of Prussia consulting firm that studies the young-adult market. Given the current state of the economy, Morrison says, "it's a very rational move to make." Plus, young people living at home have more disposable cash to spend - for a cool cell phone, or a car, or going out with friends.
Fewer young people lived with parents in the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, when jobs were plentiful and housing prices lower, and young people married earlier. Now, about one in three people between 18 and 29 live with their parents, according to recent census figures.
"There's an understanding today that the parents' job contract extends beyond college, and even for those who aren't college-bound, it's understood it takes a little longer to be able to afford to live on your own," says Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He anticipates the number of young adults living at home will increase because of fewer jobs and lower paychecks.
Data is scant on how many young people have moved back in with their parents since the economy tumbled in the fall. But anecdotally, the bad climate appears to be creating more of the homeward bound.
Twentysomething's Morrison says that as businesses scale back their recruiting and rescind job offers to college seniors, many soon-to-be grads view moving back home as "the only logical option based on current economic conditions."
Alina Ispas, 22, a senior business student at Penn's Wharton School, has seen job options in investment banking dry up. Most Wharton School seniors would ordinarily have jobs at major firms waiting for them by now. But that's not the case now. "In September you were supposed to be set with a job; now even people who went through that and did get a job got their offers rescinded." Consequently, Ispas has three friends - two studying engineering and one in business - contemplating a move back in with their parents over graduation.
Although Englisch received a job offer at a local company after graduating from Drexel University last year, he decided to stay at home and start an energy drink company. (The company that offered him the job has since announced layoffs.)
In place of the Winnie the Pooh and Britney Spears posters that once decorated his room, Englisch has put up silk paintings from Indonesia and an Antoni Gaudi blueprint he picked up on a trip to Barcelona, Spain. As long as he helps around the house (an Eagle scout, Englisch clears snow, does yardwork, and helps his dad clear off the "honey do" list), Englisch says living at home hasn't posed much of a problem.
It's still a big change from his last place - a shared apartment in Center City near Drexel - where he partied until the wee hours.
"You can't go out till 4 a.m. and trash the place and expect to get to it next week," Englisch says. "You've got to respect your parents."
There is also the privacy issue. When he and Magnin cozy up to watch a movie on the weekends, a parent might walk through the TV room. They tell their parents of their whereabouts when going out, something they'd never have to do living on their own. And that spare bedroom in the Englisch family's trilevel in Cherry Hill? That's where Magnin sleeps. "At least, to the best of my knowledge that's where she sleeps when she comes here," says Barbara Englisch, Mike's mother.
Kellee O'Hara, 26, moved in with her father, Jay, after getting pink-slipped from her job at a technology firm late last year. She had been living with her sister in a "great place" in Conshohocken, and hadn't lived with either of her parents since she was 17. It's a tight fit in his two-bedroom apartment, but O'Hara says her father is "probably the best roommate I've ever had."
O'Hara says she misses throwing dinner parties or inviting friends to crash at her place after a night out. "I can't be rolling in at 4 in the morning. My dad's the most laid-back man in the entire world, but I'm not going to bring back friends and party all night. They're always going to be your parents, no matter how cool they are."
From the parents' perspective, having a son or daughter back home brings with it a slew of issues. Who does the dishes? The laundry? If they have a job, should the child contribute financially to the household? Some children sign a contract before moving in, stating what each side's obligations are.
Dishes and laundry are child's play compared with some of the challenges a returning son or daughter can introduce into the house, says Marcy Caldwell, staff psychologist at Temple's Tuttleman Counseling Services office, who sees many students contemplating a move back in with their parents to save on room and board.
"There are the old tried-and-true classics of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll," Caldwell says. "Can they bring over their girlfriend or boyfriends? Can they have sleepovers?"
Parents, too, can feel their style cramped. They might miss their privacy, or feel that their child isn't pulling her weight. Above all, Caldwell says, both sides need to act like grown-ups and clearly articulate their expectations to one another.
Still, old habits die hard. Magnin's mother, Beth, says she's lapsed into her old role of cleaning up after her daughter. "I'm so used to being the caretaker, I just kind of keep doing it," she says. She also insists on knowing Magnin's whereabouts on weekends, even though her daughter works as a business analyst at Synygy, a Chester-based compensation consultancy.
"I guess I can't help it," she says. "It's that mom thing."
Living together can also reconnect parents with their children. Kellee O'Hara's parents divorced when she was a child, and she lost contact with her dad for much of her adolescence.
These days, they watch TV together - shows like Two and a Half Men and The Biggest Loser. (Though Jay O'Hara prefers Westerns.) Kellee cooks dinner for her dad, and makes sure the news is on Channel 4, just as he likes it, when he comes home from his maintenance job at the post office. And over dinner, they've developed a new tradition: Jay reads his daughter the want ads.