(CNN) — Lauren Ramsdell had a year to kill in between finishing college in May and getting married next year. So she decided to move back in with her parents.
It made the most sense, the 21-year-old graduate of Elon University in North Carolina said. She had no immediate job prospects and with a wedding coming up, she wanted to save money while looking for a job and plotting her next step.
Plus, she missed her parents and her hometown of Raleigh, and “I don’t think there’s any shame in that,” she said.
“Just because you move home doesn’t mean you’ve failed,” said Ramsdell, who has a degree in journalism and art history. “There used to be a logical progression: college, job, move on with life. But that’s not happening anymore.”
More than half of college graduates move back home, sociologist Katherine Newman wrote in her book, “The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition,” based on surveys conducted worldwide.
And many of them are finding it isn’t as painful as it sounds, she said. By setting ground rules and establishing expectations on both sides, parents and their adult children are learning to live together.
“People anticipate it will be more complicated than it turns out to be,” said Newman, dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s remarkably smooth for most families.”
Perhaps that’s because it’s such a common phenomenon. A Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data found that the share of Americans living in multigenerational households is at its highest level since the 1950s.
Overall, 39% of adults ages 18 to 34 say they either live with their parents or moved back in at some point in recent years, according the report. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 53% said they live at home or moved in temporarily, compared with 41% among adults ages 25 to 29, and 17% among those ages 30 to 34.
For adult children, part of the fear of returning home has to do with being torn away from their social circles. But, thanks to social media, especially Facebook, they’re staying in touch with more friends from different times in their lives, Newman said, and finding that others are moving back home, too. The Pew report found that among adults ages 25 to 34, 61% said they have friends or family members who have moved back in with their parents over the past few years because of economic conditions.
Personal autonomy may have been more important to members of their parents’ generation — many of whom left home as soon as they could and never looked back. Now, the tide is reversing, Newman said. She said she is hopeful that the trend of parents welcoming their adult children home will lead to those children opening their homes down the road to their aging parents, if necessary.
Newman has adopted the term “accordion family” to refer to the multigenerational working family as children move away and return and household dynamics stay in flux. Thanks to greater accessibility to education, the cultural and educational gap between parents and children is smaller than it was in previous eras, Newman said.
“Parents and children are more likely to be similarly educated and that adds to the common denominators,” Newman said. “When I was a kid I did not listen to Frank Sinatra, who was my mother’s favorite singer. But my kids listen to the Rolling Stones.”
Baby boomer parents especially tend to welcome back their adult children with open arms because they spent more time at work than in the home compared with previous generations, she said.
“They’re happy to see them coming back because they weren’t so tired of them in first place,” Newman said. “They’re not as likely to be thinking, ‘Where is Susie at midnight?’ or ‘Is Johnny studying?’ They’re getting the young adult version where surveillance and discipline issues have gone away.”
If relations were bad to begin with, however, moving home won’t make them any better, she said. An adult child staying out all night can still disturb the rest of the household.
During summer breaks, when Joan Reilly’s daughter would wake her in the middle of the night just by entering the home, she would tell herself, “only two more months.”
Now, her daughter is returning home for the foreseeable future after graduating in May from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Reilly said she is happy to have her home. But she’s been down this road before, and it wasn’t as smooth as she’d hoped it would be.
Her older daughter did not want to return to her parents’ home in the Bronx after graduating in 2003, but she couldn’t find a job and had nowhere else to go. Most of her friends had moved on, and she spent a lot of time alone in her room until she finally found a job and became financially stable enough to leave.
“I guess I was clueless. I really thought she’d be glad to be home and around us again,” said Reilly, an administrative assistant at a college in the Bronx. “But that wasn’t realistic because that’s not the life she really wanted. She wanted to not be living at home, but the economy prevented her from doing that and I guess that frustrated her.
“I had to learn to not take that too personally,” she said. “We had different expectations.”
The older daughter went all the way to Australia on a work visa, where she met her future fiancé and married. She still lives there today. In fact, Reilly’s younger daughter is currently visiting her. But, when she returns, Reilly said she hopes they can reach common ground when it comes to coming and going as she pleases.
“I want to work out a compromise with her because if she wants to go out and have a good time that’s OK,” she said. “Hopefully, either she sleeps at a friend’s house or doesn’t stay out so late so I don’t lose all sleep, just out of respect.”
It’s not the only ground rule. Reilly also expects her to do her own laundry and pay her cell phone bill while she looks for a job.
“We’ve had the conversation many times, but I think it’s going to be hard for her. I don’t know if she really believes what we say.”
Establishing ground rules and mutual terms is key to ensuring a successful transition, said Tracy Metro, host of “I Live With My Mom,” a program on YouTube home and design channel, SPACEStv.
“The real question is how to be a grown-up in your childhood home, and that’s by behaving like a grown-up,” said Metro, former host of TLC’s “Designing Spaces.”
It’s tempting for both sides to revert to the original family dynamic of mom making dinner, doing laundry and treating the adult child, like, well, a child, she said. A better approach is to behave as if you’re living on your own but just happen to be under the same roof as your parents. That means doing your laundry, cleaning, buying your own food or cooking for the house occasionally, she said. Every family deals with finances differently, but it doesn’t hurt to start the conversation about contributing to the household.
Upgrading your childhood room, if you’re still in it, can help pave the way to mental clarity necessary for becoming an adult, she said. It starts with getting rid of childhood mementos such as stuffed animals, toys and trophies.
“One nostalgic item showcases a bit of nostalgia; 20 of them is showcasing an obsession,” she said. “We keep things because they’ve always been around, but as you get older it’s important to question why we have things. There’s nothing wrong with keeping them for memory’s sake but (put) them in a box.”
Ramsdell knew her childhood room wouldn’t cut it when she moved home last month. Timing worked out so that her parents moved into her late grandfather’s room, and she moved into theirs and completely redecorated it.
Otherwise, she pitches in with chores when asked to and cooks occasionally. She offered to mow the lawn but says her parents politely declined because it would be difficult to get back on the lawn boy’s list when she left. Overall, she attributes the success of the arrangement to the fact that she has always had a good relationship with her parents.
Plus, there’s an endgame in sight when she gets married next June.