With its stay-at-home orders and restrictions on movements, with rush hours slowed, pollution lowered and shopping habits turned on their head, the pandemic quickly earned itself a nickname: the great pause. This pause, it was argued in the early days, would give us space to think, to reassess our lives and priorities as a society – and perhaps to emerge with fresh perspective.
But, for many families, things did not grind to a halt immediately. Instead, what took place was a nationwide reshuffle: thousands packed their bags to move into new “bubbles”, households and living situations where they hoped to weather the storm more successfully. For many people, that meant moving in with their parents.
There was already a colloquial term for such people before the pandemic: boomerangs. These are adults, usually aged between 20 and 34 (hence “the boomerang generation”) who have moved away from their childhood home, then returned. They have become more common in the past 10 years, thanks to rising rents and property prices, unemployment and stagnating wages – all of which have made it harder for young people to afford their own homes.
At the last count, in October, there were about 3.5 million boomerangs in the UK – two-thirds of all childless 20- to 34-year-olds – and there is no doubt that the pandemic has increased this number. Indeed, with unemployment up to 14.2% and the economy having shrunk by nearly 10%, the boomerang effect is no longer limited to millennials.
There is still a stigma attached to living with your parents. It conjures up the stereotype of the infantilised loser who can’t cut it in the real world. But just as the great pause has prompted us to rethink how we live our lives, it may be time to reconsider what we expect adulthood to look like.
Ruby Webster, 27, admits the thought of moving back to her parents’ filled her with dread. “I remember, on a car journey once, I turned to my dad and said: ‘It’s unnatural for children to move back in with their parents – it doesn’t work and nor should it,’” she says. “But I didn’t really have any other option.”
In September, Webster lost her job in the civil service. She moved from London to her parents’ home in a village near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, trading in her flatmates for Mum, Dad and her younger sister, who found herself back home when her studies no longer required her to live near campus.
“I’m a living, breathing boomerang kid, going against every instinctive fibre of my being,” says Webster. “Mentally, I feel like I’ve taken a huge involuntary life step back. But my parents have been so understanding and, if I’m honest, I’m enjoying being in their company again.”
Moving home has been an exercise in renegotiating the parent-child relationship. “It’s quite a nostalgic experience,” she says. “You immediately revert back to child mode. Supermarket excursions are just as riveting as they were at 14, sneaking treats into the trolley when my mum wanders off. But, equally, I love cooking for them. Some of the regression can be really pleasurable, like eating together, belly-laughing at something ridiculous, putting the world to rights, singing Frank Ocean really loud and playing board games – even if they generally end in an argument.”
As restrictions begin to lift, though, Webster is keen to get back to a big city: “The fomo [fear of missing out] has started.” She says the key to managing the situation is understanding that it is temporary, and respecting her parents’ home as theirs. “They only moved in recently – this was always supposed to be just their house. So when my dad insists on sitting on his sofa and only wanting to use that specific fork, why not? It’s his home, not mine.
“Naturally, we grate on each other, but we’re lucky to have enough physical space to distance ourselves when needs be,” she says. “And I understand they won’t be around for ever. I’ll cherish these moments. It made me realise how lucky I am, especially at Christmas, when people were talking about avoiding relatives. We’re very close, and we share the same worldview, so it makes existing in the same space a lot easier.”
For Janet Smythson, who is in her 30s, worldviews were precisely the problem. “My parents and I haven’t had a good relationship for some years. We’d become the archetypal Brexit civil war family. I’m a remainer; they’re leave voters. My values as a liberal, my left-of-centre politics and my queer sexuality brought me into conflict with their conservative opinions. I never imagined that I would be able to live back with them.”
When the pandemic hit, Smythson had a job that came with a home. Then she became ill. Her employers were not supportive and the lack of routine in lockdown only worsened what she describes as a “toxic environment”. She felt she had no choice but to resign. “I felt like moving back was a failure and that people would judge me, especially since I left my job at the same time.”
But coming home was easier than Smythson had imagined. “It’s not as much like being a child as I feared. I try to pull my weight with chores, although it’s fair to say that my standards do not match Mother’s. We have found we like some of the same TV programmes and there is certainly more to talk about living together than when we lived apart.
“At the same time, there is more criticism than I would get if I weren’t here, like comments on my clothes and hair. I also think I will never have sex again. Still, there are more positives than negatives.”
Nothing is more positive than the closeness that has blossomed in the family and the “amazing opportunity to rebuild a damaged relationship”, she says. “My grandmother is beginning to become ill and we’ve formed a bubble,” she says. “Being able to see her regularly and support my parents as they look after her are things I can now see as a blessing.”
Smythson says she thinks she will continue to live with her parents even after Covid – and even after she is able financially to move out. “Old age will creep up on them and I am starting to think that I would rather be there to support them than off again.
“When I became too ill to work, I felt like my whole identity had been shattered. I was purposeless and suicidal. My parents, however, have really helped me to find a new sense of self. Had I not had the support of my parents, I don’t think I would be alive today.”
Dr Carmen Clayton is an academic at Leeds Trinity University who specialises in family and cultural dynamics. She is studying how the pandemic is affecting the wellbeing of 60 families in a range of configurations – families with children of varying ages, multigenerational households, single parents – across locations and ethnicities. Nearly all of the parents in the study report that the family bond appears to have strengthened.
When negative experiences are reported, they are usually related to external factors, she says. “The ones who had a more positive experience were often the ones who had flexibility over working patterns or had employers who were sympathetic to the situation. There was often a positive, ‘in it together’ mentality,” says Clayton. “Families we spoke to felt that the family dynamic changes – in terms of closeness and bonds – were something that they wanted to encourage and maintain post-lockdown.”
Hinal Acharya says space has been a major factor in the “very stressful experience” of moving back to her parents’ home. She was living hundreds of miles away, training to advance her career, but a disappointing exam result forced her to return to her childhood home. It is a traditional Indian household, where hierarchical rules – elders at the top – apply. “I’ve come home in my late 40s,” she says. “But I’m not an adult any more. I’m not living by my rules; I’m living by Mum’s.”
Acharya’s family have long criticised her – and being cooped up in one place has only fanned the flames. “My main reason for leaving was that I did not fit the typical Indian box. So coming back here, a failure in my studies, the nitpicking started, about how I shouldn’t be this or that and should be married and have kids.”
But coming from an Asian background offers a different perspective: “Family is one of our core values, so coming back home might be a change, but it’s not abnormal. I feel no stigma at all. I don’t feel embarrassed in the slightest to say I live at home, even when colleagues raise an eyebrow.”
It is the same for the legal consultant and author Saurav Dutt, 35, who is living with his parents in London. Dutt was living in Warwickshire when he started to feel concerned about his mother and father. Relatives in India were dying of the virus and extended family in the US were seeing infection rates shoot up. Dutt knew his parents would be talking to relatives and that their home would be full of grief and fear. Being able to work remotely, and being the only child, moving back in with them was a no-brainer, he says.
“Immediately, you could see this massive uplift in their spirits,” he says. He has nothing but positive feelings about living at home and does not see any need to rush away again when the pandemic is over.
“I’ll want to help my parents acclimatise to normal life, whatever that is,” he says. For now, the tensions seem minor. “There’s definitely a tendency to micromanage and to fuss, to make sure I’m comfortable – but I appreciate it and it keeps Mum busy and happy. Maybe knowing that I’m here to help add positivity, rather than because of circumstance, empowers me. I don’t get frustrated. I don’t feel any stigma.
“The silver lining of this whole experience is that it has reinforced the value of the family unit and learning best behaviours and best practice in the family. It’s understanding how to bring out the best in each other. It prevents atomisation, which can happen, particularly in western societies. I think that’s really good.”
Nic Bestley, a 32-year-old communications specialist from Surrey, moved home when the pandemic stalled his freshly launched business. “I started 2020 full of the ‘new year, new you’ spirit. I decided to quit my job and start my own firm.”
But it was not a good time to start a business. By August, Bestley had run out of money. “I was quite stressed about it. At the age of 32, asking if you can come back home for a couple of months is a bit of an awkward conversation. I felt guilty. But my mum was really generous. She offered before I could ask.”
Bestley says being at home has taken the pressure off; he has been able to focus and grow his business. He has also enjoyed a newfound closeness with his stepdad. “My relationship with my stepdad has improved a lot over the years, from the 14-year-old wondering: ‘Who the hell are you?’ to being able to enjoy a beer and go to gigs. It’s been nice to get to know him on an adult level. And it’s been nice to be there for them both. My mum thought when she retired it would be all girls’ holidays and shopping, and my stepdad is very sociable. So we’re getting through it together.”
Bestley says he has been sure to keep his independence – he does his own laundry, shares in the chores and contributes to the bills (“We’re like three adults living together”) – but is keen to move out as soon as possible.
“Being at home isn’t great for dating,” he says. “And it’s just not what I saw happening. I went into last year thinking: ‘I’ll start my own business and be really successful,’ and at the end of the year I’m at Mum’s kitchen table.” But doesn’t every great entrepreneur story start with a dream at a kitchen table? “Maybe!” he says, laughing. “Maybe this will make a great introduction to my Ted Talk some day.”
Some names and identifying details have been changed.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.