They never thought they'd be back so soon.
But for many college seniors planning to finish school this spring, life after graduation will begin with an unanticipated detour back to Wilton. The unwelcoming job market and tough economic climate have forced a rising number of young adults back into the nest, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Columbia University. The study, which used data from the U.S. Current Population Survey, revealed that 52.8 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 lived at home with their parents in 2009, up from 47.3 percent in 1970.
College graduates returning to Wilton are rediscovering all the comforts of home. Most live rent-free, and remain on family plans for gym memberships and cell-phone contracts. While suburban Wilton isn't exactly a hotspot for 20-somethings, the restrictions parents impose are minimal, and it's easy to get comfortable.
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According to Marcina Hale-Cristobal, a marriage and family therapist in Westport, the biggest challenge facing families when adult children move back home is the altered dynamic between parent and child. Young adults are used to coming and going as they please, but parents may insist they check in if they plan to be out late, and be concerned when they sleep until the afternoon.
"When the child returns after being so independent, there is often a conflict between the expectations for them around the house and what they experienced in college," Hale-Cristobal said. "If they are getting up late and not showing any initiative, parents worry, 'Are my children becoming too comfortable because everything's provided for them?'"
Rob O'Neill, a 2006 Wilton High School graduate, moved back home in August after studying at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, and is applying to police departments in the area. Living with his family has been a painless transition between school and career. He often stays up late playing cards and talking with his mother after his father and siblings have gone to bed. "The best part about being home is spending time with my family," he said. "My parents are pretty easy going. Basically, their rule is if you live here, you have to help out with whatever needs to be done." They have also instituted a ban on having friends over on weeknights, since the family's two youngest children are still in school.
Aside from her son's bad habit of leaving lights on around the house, Rob's mother is happy to have her "kindred soul" back. "We have an open-door policy; we told him he can live here as long as he wants," Patty O'Neill said. "In my day, when you left home, it was to get married. That's what I did. I don't mind if that's what my children do."
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Michael Galella also lived with his parents until his wedding day. He and his wife, Lynda, have always told their two children they are welcome to live at home for as long as they want. Their son, Nick, returned home after graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 2009. Lynda loves having her youngest child around the house, even if it delays the couple's plans to downsize. "I love being a Mom, so having Nick here is a bonus," she said. "But we were looking forward to the next step. I would like to have a smaller house, maybe buy a summer home."
Nick, who is working as a solar panel salesman in Danbury, appreciates not having to pay rent, but dislikes how his parents always seem to know whom he's dating and insist on knowing where he's going. "He pushes the limits," Lynda said. "He thinks because he's older, he doesn't have to listen to us. He is an adult, so it is really hard to find a balance."
Ryan LaMantia, a 2009 Syracuse University alumnus, home since graduation, also enjoys his rent-free living arrangement, but is eager to explore experiences beyond Wilton. "I'm happy I grew up here, but as a 23-year-old, it's not where I want to be," he said. "It's full of opportunity, but not the kind people my age are looking for."
Hale-Cristovbal explained that when young adults from affluent towns like Wilton leave home, they sometimes struggle with the transition to more humble living conditions than they are accustomed to. "Their standard of living is so much higher at home than what they can afford when starting their career," she said. "In order to be independent, they have to adjust to a different way of life."
Ryan recognizes how easy it is to become used to home-cooked meals. "You can become so comfortable you don't want to leave," he said, "and start to think living at home is okay."
For Robin Browne, six months back in the nest was all she could handle. The 2010 University of Connecticut graduate loved the lively mealtimes with her family, but living and working in the town she had grown up in quickly became stifling. "I got pretty bad cabin fever," she admitted. While living with her parents undeniably had its benefits, she moved to New York City in January. "The best part was having free food and a designated driver, also known as Mom," she said. "I only did that once," Robin's mother, Debra Browne said of providing her daughter with sober chauffeuring services. "But I'll go anywhere to get her." Debra was overjoyed to have Robin move back home, especially since her youngest daughter had just gone away to college. "Having your chicks in the nest is a heartwarming, wonderful experience."
Adult children and their parents have a much different relationship today than when Debra's generation was in their 20s. The bond between them is stronger now, and parents today are eager to keep their children at home longer. "With my generation, our parents might have wanted us to move back to our hometown, but they certainly didn't expect or desire us to move back into our old bedrooms," Debra said. "Now, the idea of prolonged early adulthood has become accepted."
Two of Marie and Paul Jarboe's three children will be returning home after graduation this spring. "The door's always swinging," Marie said. "But it's fine." This will be the second time for the couple's oldest child, Paul. He spent a year in Wilton in between finishing his undergraduate degree and starting graduate school. "It was nice because we had a different kind of relationship," Marie said. "Paul being the oldest, his younger siblings were always around. This time, we got to know him a bit more."
- By Katherine King
This article appears in the May/June 2011 issue of Wilton Magazine