William Shakespeare's Hamlet is many things: a complex character study, a philosophical treatise on good and evil, a good old-fashioned bloodsoaked political drama. But, considering how quickly things escalate once the Danish prince returns home after a sojourn overseas, how about a warning to never, ever move back in with your parents?
As Harvard historian Nancy Koehn tells us, a growing number of young Americans have chosen not to heed that advice. In 1980, a mere 11% of adults aged 25-35 lived at home with their parents. Thirty years later, fueled by changing pathways to upward mobility, an uncertain economy, and skyrocketing student loan debts, that number has practically doubled (in 2010, the total was 21.6%.) The precipitous rise has even led to a pithy moniker for millennials who leave the nest only to return home again: the "Boomerang generation."
The reverse diaspora of the "boomerangs," however, may leave more at stake than just depriving their parents of an extra bedroom to convert into a home gym. If we look at the matter historically, Koehn says, a pattern emerges: for significant, creative people of the past, the most pivotal points in their careers often occurred when they left home and moved away from what was comfortable and familiar. If a new generation never quite leaves home, is it depriving itself of those same transformative experiences?
Take potter Josiah Wedgwood, for example -- creator, as Koehn describes it, of the world's "first consumer brand." Wedgwood probably would have died in obscurity (and, if we're indulging in hypotheticals here, from smallpox) had he never left the tiny hamlet of Burslem, Staffordshire. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, lived within twenty miles of Boston for the majority of her life, but it wasn't until she spent six weeks in Washington, D.C. as a Civil War nurse that she began to fully develop the maturity, sensitivity, and perspective as a writer that made her famous. As Koehn puts it: "The idea that we break out of places that are comfortable and that important good things happen -- both inside the person, and outside in terms of impact -- is an undeniable, powerful relationship."
So is it time for parents to give their little lost boomerangs the boot? Not quite, Koehn advises. For some, the process of striking out on their own may just take longer than it does for others -- and that's fine, she says, as long as they don't get too comfortable.
"Lots of people, young and old, piece it together and find their sanctuaries or find their safe havens, in order to get ready for the next journey they're going to go out on the seas on," Koehn says. "We just want people to keep on venturing out."
Listen to historian Nancy Koehn's full take on the Boomerang generation, below.