What to do when your empty nest isn’t empty?

It’s graduation time.  Kids are going off to college.  Others are graduating from college and moving on to jobs and homes of their own while parents around the nation are adjusting to their new lives as empty nesters…  At least they used to be.

These days it seems there is a growing trend that leaves empty nesters looking to find an empty nest because when their little birdies learn to fly, they are coming back home to roost.

A 2010 article in the New York Times called “What Is It about 20-Somethings” stated that,

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.[1]

We have asked Dr. Betsy Nesbitt, PhD, NCC, who is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Denver Seminary, to weigh in on this issue with us.  As a speaker and consultant, Dr. Nesbitt focuses on generational differences in management and in ministry, working in both the secular and Christian spheres.

What factors are contributing to this new trend?  Why are kids coming home to live rather than getting places of their own?

My first instinct is actually to say that it’s the economy.  Starting salaries haven’t necessarily risen a lot in the last ten years, but the cost of living has.  Additionally, students are incurring far more debt than they had in the past.  Some of that debt is consumer debt, and some is from college loans.  In regards to consumer (credit card) debt, this is a huge generational change.  This generation assumes that debt is a part of reality whereas previous generations assumed that if they worked hard enough, they wouldn’t have any debt.  When debt is assumed, it is easily accrued.

In regards to the debt many incur from the cost of education, the fact is that federal subsidies for higher public education are being cut.  With the decrease in government funding for public higher education, the costs are then incurred by the students.  The end result of which is that the cost of college education increases by about 8% on average annually (significantly higher than the rate of inflation).[2]

The bottom line is that, whether through poor financial management, rising costs of living or rising costs of education… graduating students are burdened by a significantly higher level of debt than in generations past.  In Fact, in 2011, the average student loan debt for all borrowers was $23,300. Ten percent owe more than $54,000, and three percent owe more than $100,000. That amounts to more than one million people owing six figures for their education.[3]

Along with the rising financial burdens, there are other contributing factors as well.  The millennial generation (or some call them Gen Y, but they prefer to be called millennial generation), which consists of anyone under 30, refers to their parents as being friends.  Past generations tended to see parents as authority figures, parents…people that they wanted to separate from for one reason or another.  This generation however sees their parents as friends and therefore hasn’t the same desire to establish that separation, to “differentiate” as it’s called in more technical terms.

Additionally, Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before, has compared the psychological traits of generations of the past 50+ years.  She found that this generation has the highest anxiety levels out of all of them.  This generation is more fearful and less comfortable with taking risks.  This means they are more likely to play it safe and move back home.

Dr. Nesbitt says that in her research, millennials stated essentially, “We have been told our whole lives that we can do or be anything we want to, but no one has taught us how.”  It seems that this vote of confidence has actually had the reverse effect and become more paralyzing than anything.  From their perspective they are saying, “Well, why would I do it if it won’t be right?  I’m waiting for my time, for the opportunity to do or be what I’m supposed to do or be.”  They are waiting on it to happen to them or for them, compared to previous generations who expected rather that they would have to go out and make things happen, fully expecting that nothing was going to just happen for them.

Another component of this is simply that it is now more socially acceptable to move home than it used to be.

Historically and culturally, (if you look beyond the American culture), it seems this isn’t such a new thing and is actually rather common.  Do you think our cultural expectations that young adults leave and find a home of their own (especially, but not exclusively, if that person is single) is healthy?  Does the culture make a difference (outside of basic expectations) to the discussion?

Is there something inherently wrong with young adults moving back home after college?  No.  But it’s not the way our culture has been the past 100 years or so in America, so it still doesn’t feel comfortable to us.  The counselor in me says it’s more a matter of WHY they are moving home than IF they are moving home.  In other words, I think the bigger question is to ask if they are doing this to escape responsibility or if they are doing this because it’s truly a wise decision – this makes a big difference to me.  Are they moving back into their parent’s home as an adult (i.e., embracing responsibility) or are they moving back in as a child (i.e., running from responsibility)?

The New York Times wrote this article in which the author indicated that a “failure to launch” from the home is a sign that young adults are taking longer to truly become adults?  Do you agree?  Can we also clarify how you would define “adult”?

I would agree that acceptance of this concept of emerging adulthood does postpone adulthood (see article link above for more information).  We are one of the few cultures that recognizes adolescence as a unique stage of life.  We are also one of the few cultures that fails to consistently mark transitions to new stages in life.  We don’t have a single “tribal event” to designate or formally recognize someone moving from a child to an adult like other cultures do.  We say at eighteen that you are legally an adult, but there is no real rite of passage—the kind that other cultures deem so critical.  We really don’t even have a clear definition in our culture of adulthood.  We have some general markers, things that adults do, but, what if you don’t marry, what if you don’t have a family (things which adults do)…are you then an adult or not?  At what point are you seen as an adult?

In cultures which have a clear rite of passage into adulthood (or any stage of life), there are almost always responsibilities that come with that passage into adulthood (or stage), not just privileges.  In America however, we tend to confer privileges instead of responsibilities with adulthood.  You get to vote, you get to drink, etc., but you aren’t necessarily responsible to.

What is your response to this statement from the NYT article, and do you think this issue of young adults returning home is the chicken or the egg?  Is it causal or is it just a natural response to something else?  Or a combination of both?

“The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”

One of the things that I will say often when I speak of generational differences is that, each generation takes for granted the good of the past, reacts against the bad, and responds within their current historical context.  And so one of the things that I think the younger generation is reacting against, is that they watched their parents invest wholeheartedly into a job that promised them a pension, retirement and lifetime employment, but then, twenty years in, they were downsized.  That all happened in middle/high school for the millennial generation.  At a critical time in their lives, they saw mom and dad’s investment into something backfire.  So, why would they make that same investment or commitment?

What pros and cons do you see to young adults returning home? 

I think the pros I see would be that, there can be a financial benefit in order to minimize debt or cut back on debt (which can be a move toward responsibility, not away from it…if they are intentional about that time).  There is also a potential benefit that they have additional time (kind of a grace period) to grow up and catch up to where previous generations would have been at an earlier age.

I think the downside to that, though, is that it also has the potential to stall the developmental process because they aren’t forced to take ownership and risk, and maybe fail and learn from that.

I think the other downside for mom and dad is that, mom and dad miss out on the next stage of their development—to get to be empty nesters, to figure out how to be adults without children in the home.

What effects do you think this will have on future generations and/or our culture/society?

Well, I think we are already seeing that people are postponing marriage and parenthood.  So, it’s not just that people are moving home but still getting married at 23, so they’re only home for 6 months or so.  Instead, they are delaying marriage till late 20s (and beyond), so marriage and parenthood “norms” are changing.

I mentioned that each generation takes for granted the good of the past, reacts against the bad, and responds within their current historical context.  The reality is that the children of the millennials will also take the good for granted and react against the bad, but we don’t know what that good and bad will be.  We also don’t know what the historical context is that they will find themselves in.  Therefore it’s very difficult to accurately predict the effect this will have on future generations, culture, etc.  The pendulum could swing the other way in response, but it could also keep on spinning this direction.  I just don’t know that we have enough information to accurately predict that.

Certainly this is a broad generalization, but do you think that when young adults move back home they feel a lack of ownership in their lives, future, the house they live in, etc.?  And if so, do you think this also affects their sense of ownership in work, church, community, etc. as well?

As a broad generalization, YES!  Because I think that, yes, it’s not just moving home—it’s what moving home represents.  And with moving home rather than into their own place, there is often a lack of feeling grounded or connected; a lack of having ownership in their life.

There are exceptions, of course.  Sometimes parents and child make a wise and responsible decision for a child to move back home (for a time and for a reason) in order to accomplish goals in their life and take ownership.  If this is the case, if it’s a well thought out, and communicated and temporary situation, it can be in everyone’s best interest and actually be the result of responsibility and maturity, rather than an indication that someone is running from it.

How do you distinguish between the young adult who comes home because he/she is avoiding responsibility (or some aspect of life) and the young adult who does so because they are responsible (i.e., it enables them to save money faster so they can buy a home)? 

I think the biggest piece is having an open conversation about why.  Why are you moving home, and for what purpose, and for how long?  When those things have been more thoroughly discussed, you get a better sense of motivation.  As a parent, you will know if it’s something you want to encourage.

On the flip side, we often blame the child, but the truth is mom and dad often get a kick out of it when the kid still needs them.  They don’t always want the kid to launch because they don’t know who they are without the child needing them.  Is the parent letting go appropriately?  If not, why not?  What need are they trying to meet by having their child stay home and not letting or even forcing their child to take risks and leave?

How would you encourage parents in light of this discussion? 

  • If they have younger children: i.e., Are there things they should do to instill a sense of responsibility and/or expectations, etc. before the situation arises? 
    • I think the biggest thing is to have the right view of parenting.  The goal of parenting is to launch successful adults; it’s not to raise children.  It’s a semantics difference, but I think it’s a significant one.  If my job is to take this two-year-old and make them a twenty-year-old who can function on their own, that’s different than how do I parent a two-year-old?  Everything becomes, then, a teaching moment and a life skill; everything is seen in light of the future.  So if you are raising a child, you protect that child from any harm.  You don’t want them to fall or scrape a knee.  But if you are raising a future adult, then you realize that they need to learn how to fall and get back up again.  They need to learn how to face hardships and keep on going.  Of course all of this is done within reason and appropriate to their stage of development, but the point is that it’s also done with the perspective of a future objective…that child isn’t going to stay a two-year-old forever!
    • As a family, it’s important to create rites of passage where kids gain responsibility and privilege at different mile markers.  So, “Great!—you get your driver’s license, but you are also now responsible for grocery shopping once a month since you have a car and can help.”  This helps them see stages in life as not just privilege, but also that they come with responsibility.
  • If they currently have a young adult who came back home: i.e., Should parents manage their expectations?  Should they set “boundaries” and/or timelines for the child/children who came home?  Is there any reason to fear “enabling” and how can it be avoided?
    • Parents have a responsibility to initiate the conversation of how the roles are going to change.  Discuss just how that child is going to come back home as an adult, not as a child.  It should be different now than it was when they were there as a kid.  Adults have responsibility for the space in which they live.  It may be paying some rent, or helping with chores.  Whatever it may be, the responsibilities need to be defined and situation appropriate.  Again, this all comes back to you your job as a successful parent—it’s to raise an adult, not house or parent a child.
    • Along with those responsibilities, set some consequences and boundaries—things to help ensure they meet their new responsibilities.  Those consequences should be realistic, viable and personal.  (For example, it may not be realistic or fair to charge a child rent who doesn’t have a job—unless, he/she won’t get a job without that pressure!  Or if a kid just loves to mow the lawn, that may not be a good consequence.)  Be specific and clear and have a definite timeline…and be willing to follow through if the child doesn’t meet the agreed upon responsibilities (back to making sure the consequences are realistic—they have to be something you are willing to follow through on).  If possible, let the child weigh in on the consequences.  Often they’ll choose a better one than you ever would, and then they have buy-in—they picked it!  Your child isn’t living there as your child anymore, they are living there as an adult.  That may mean that you need to adjust your thinking and view them more as a boarder in your house.
  • If their friends have children who have “failed to launch” in some way or another: i.e. How should they respond and/or be supportive?  What should they avoid saying or doing (especially if they haven’t been in those shoes)?
    • I think you avoid telling other people how they should raise their children.  (Of course, it’s another thing if they are coming to you and asking for help/advice.)  Remember, you don’t know the back story.  Is this child unique in some way?  Your child may have been ready to launch at 18, but their child may need till he/she is 30.  Your kid, their kid…may not be normal.  It’s important to extend grace and support (but not judgment) to the journey other parents and their children are on.  You don’t know the historical context they are uniquely living in.
    • Additionally, friendships can play a really huge role in being supportive.  If you’re both trying to launch a child, that mutual support can be very helpful!  Support and encouragement are great.  Assumptions and/or judgments are explosive materials.


As Dr. Nesbitt and I talked, I couldn’t help but think that it might be beneficial to close with a quick thought about plants.  A cactus requires an entirely different amount of sun and water and time to become what it was created to be than a lily does.  The point isn’t how much water, sun or time is required for each individual plant to become as God intended, the point is that it does become as God intended.  I think the same principle applies for us.  The point is that we each earnestly strive to become what God created us to be, and, as we are able, to help others become what God created them to be…and to have grace and patience when they have different needs and take a longer time to bloom than others do.  Or, in the words of Paul:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”   Philippians 3:12-16


-Interview by Stacey Tuttle-


[1] You’ll notice that the data is from the 2000 census.  It’s been another 12 years since that data was collected, and we’ve suffered a significant economic decline since then, which would surely make those statistics extremely generous for today.   Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a corresponding study that was more recent.


[2] “A good rule of thumb is that tuition rates will increase at about twice the general inflation rate. During any 17-year period from 1958 to 2001, the average annual tuition inflation rate was between 6% and 9%, ranging from 1.2 times general inflation to 2.1 times general inflation. On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years. For a baby born today, this means that college costs will be more than three times current rates when the child matriculates in college.” http://www.finaid.org/savings/tuition-inflation.phtml   While numbers may vary depending on whose research you read, the results are still conclusive that college costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation.