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Bonus Years

There are a lot of articles these days about boomerang kids who return to their parents’ homes after college, and the label is not usually meant as a compliment. The 2006 film “Failure to Launch” featured a desperate couple who hire a “professional motivator” to get their 35-year-old son out of the house.

I understand why some parents feel the need to push their fledglings out of the nest. I am not judging anyone. But I’m taking the day off from work today to help my first-born move into her new Manhattan apartment, and I see things differently. For me, today marks the end of what I call the bonus years, at least as far as my older daughter is concerned.

I feel lucky to have had her under my roof for the past three years. We will have the rest of our lives to live apart, and since my wife and I are in our 50s, that’s likely to be quite a long time. These three years have been a bonus, some quality time with my grown-up daughter that I had no right to expect.

She was still a teenager seven years ago when I drove her to her freshman dorm, 900 miles away. She was a good kid, but let’s face it: Nature makes babies irresistible so we won’t let them starve, and nature makes teenagers quite resistible so universities can meet their enrollment targets. By the time high school graduation rolls around, everyone is ready for a break. The things most people do when they go away to college are best done in the absence of parents.

My daughter was still transitioning to adulthood when she graduated with a psychology degree in 2008. She already had a regular summer job at the camp she first attended when she was 11, and when that first post-college summer was over, she found a position for the other three seasons as a mental health worker at a psychiatric hospital. The hospital job was low-paying and often grueling work. I believe mental health workers are what we used to call “orderlies.”

My daughter’s particular interest is working with children. The hospital had her supervising children who ranged from younger than 10 to their teens. These hospitalized children had problems far more profound than anything my daughter ever encountered in a bunk at summer camp. Her job demanded a mix of patience, toughness and empathy that I could never have mustered myself.

Her initial plan was to live with us for a short time while she saved money for her own place. My wife and I were going to subsidize her living expenses anyway, since she could not have lived on what the hospital paid her. We felt a short-term subsidy was warranted, because our daughter’s job gave her a chance to decide whether psychology was really her calling before she pursued a lengthy and expensive graduate program in the field.

She did not move out after that first year, or after the second. She decided instead to keep living with us while she prepared for grad school and saved more money. So today, with three years of savings in the bank, she moves into her own apartment, and next week she will start her doctoral studies. In about five years, she should emerge from her program as a fully qualified therapist.

As I said, she was transitioning to adulthood when she graduated from college. She completed that transition in front of my eyes as she lived at home these past three years.

I saw her slog through day after day of 13-hour shifts when the hospital needed her. I saw her leave in white-knuckle snowstorms to drive to work, prepared to bunk on the hospital premises if conditions made it too dangerous to come home. I saw her study her patients’ conditions and exhaustively prepare for her graduate school entrance exams.

I would have known she was doing all these things even if she had been living on her own, but I would have missed the nuances of her maturation, and I would have missed her company, too. I don’t believe in burdening children with adult problems, but as she became an adult, my daughter became someone I could confide in, someone I could use as a sounding board and turn to for advice.

The weak economy and poor job market are often credited, or blamed, for the increase in boomerang kids, but there is more to it than that. National Public Radio reported last year on a Pew Research Center study that says the trend toward multi-generational households has been with us for 30 years.

Some of this trend is cultural, as immigrant and certain ethnic groups maintain traditions that include living with extended family. Some of it probably results from the rise of the two-income household, where having grandparents around can be a big help with child care and after-school activities. And some of it reflects the cost of living today.

The house in which we raised our daughters would be just a typical upper-middle-class home in most of the country, but in suburban New York, the property taxes are more than $30,000 a year. A buyer would probably need an annual household income of at least $400,000 to afford it now. My kids’ childhood friends who enter fields like teaching or journalism will not be able to buy their own homes in the places where they grew up unless their parents participate in some way.

Some young adults therefore boomerang by necessity. Some boomerang by choice, but it’s not a bad choice – at least in my book.

While I wish my daughter nothing but joy in her new home, I am not pushing her out of the nest. This fledgling is taking wing on her own.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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