Comeback Kids

Loads of local college grads have moved back in with Mom and Dad. Why?!

Katie Hanzlik is just one of scores of recent college graduates forced to move home to Sacramento, back in with their parents because they couldn’t find jobs in the current economy.

Katie Hanzlik is just one of scores of recent college graduates forced to move home to Sacramento, back in with their parents because they couldn’t find jobs in the current economy.


Katie Hanzlik of Sacramento wants to live “somewhere else, in a cool, big city.” Maybe D.C. or New York, or even just down Interstate 80 in San Francisco. During college, she lived in France for a year; she wants to travel again.

For Hanzlik, who graduated from UC Santa Barbara last summer with a joint major in global studies and French, the post-college experience has been particularly jarring. She flew to New York to look for work, but couldn’t find any. She returned to Sacramento and looked for work—and, again, couldn’t find any. She interviewed for an unpaid internship in San Francisco, but didn’t get the position. She even tried for local waitressing gigs, but couldn’t snag a job.

Like at least a dozen of her recently graduated friends from UCSB, Hanzlik, tall and blond, her bangs brushed forward on her head, ended up living back at home again, searching the Web for job openings, spending too much time on Facebook or tweeting, watching daytime TV.

“We all have good degrees, were good students, but it’s hard to find anything right now,” the young woman says, sitting on her parents’ pea-green sofa, in the heavily carpeted living room of their Pocket neighborhood ranch house, a bean-shaped pool glistening out back. “It’s hard to be so successful in college and then move back and literally be where I was when I was 17.”

It wasn’t that Hanzlik resented her parents—or even that they particularly cramped her style; it was more a nagging sense that she’d seen too much of life to be living like a kid again.

“My urge to be somewhere else is connected with my urge to be independent. I don’t have a curfew or rules like when I was 16, but I’m not shopping for myself or living as independently as I used to. My parents still expect me to contribute to the household—running errands for them or doing chores for them. We have two cars between four people; I’m picking my mom up from work a lot of the time—at Kennedy High School.”

When she came into the house late at night, her bedroom door creaked and it woke up her dad. When she left her stuff around the house, her mother got frustrated that she wasn’t cleaning up after herself.

Time, she felt, was crawling—and, some days, she really didn’t see the reason to switch her pj’s for outdoor clothes. She’d stay at home, curled up on the sofa reading—or watching CNN or the Food Network on the large Samsung flat-screen television set up next to her parents’ stone fireplace, or checking French news on her laptop homepage.

Eventually, she got so desperate, so truly bored, that she printed out a bunch of résumés, went down to the Capitol building shortly after Gov. Jerry Brown’s January inauguration, and spent a day literally going from floor to floor distributing her credentials to anyone who would take them. Finally, after weeks of waiting, she was called for an interview—and ended up with an unpaid internship in Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s office.

“At this point,” she says, laughing, “most of my opportunities are unpaid internships, which is fine. I just need an excuse to get out of the house sometimes.”

Clare van de Erve completed college with honors and high hopes for her career, but ended up waitressing and living on her parents’ dime for more than a year. Luckily, things have turned in her favor more recently.


Boomerang kids

Hanzlik isn’t alone. Throughout the Sacramento region, young university graduates, unable to find jobs to match their qualifications and ambitions, have found themselves returning to live at home. Sometimes, if their parents are more affluent, they are living outside the home but still relying on their parents to pay their bills.

Rachel Menz finished college with an international relations major and then had to re-enroll in extra classes so that she would remain eligible to keep her state job as a student assistant, doing 24 hours a week of clerical work for the State Personnel Board in downtown Sacramento. She spent months sending out résumés to get a more permanent, full-time job that would allow her to move on with her life. The result: “Nothing.” For a year after she graduated, Menz lived at home with her folks. Recently, she moved out, taking a small Midtown apartment with a roommate—but the result has been, she says, just more debt. Most of her friends are back to living with their parents.

Molly Dittberner, aged 25, and a Sacramento City College student, is bored with Sacramento. “It was,” she says, fighting off a cold and chugging on a cup of tea, “my transitional city.” But, ideally, she wants to go elsewhere. In the meantime, unable to cobble together enough cash to start life afresh in another town, she’s working at Freeport Bakery to pay her bills; it was the only way she could afford to move out from her parents’ Grass Valley home—to which she had been forced to return after losing her previous job, as a receptionist, shortly after the recession began. There was something infantilizing, she felt, about having to move back home after six years on her own, “the baby bird in the tree thing.”

Mark Kashtan spent the summer of 2009 cycling across country—from San Francisco to D.C.—after graduating from UC Berkeley. More recently, he has set his sights on getting some internships before he goes off to medical school. After a year of living at home with his folks, Kashtan now resides in an apartment with a couple friends in Davis—but, since he is unable to find paid work, his parents are paying the bills.

Kashtan is quick to stress that he loves his parents—he just doesn’t want to live with them anymore. It was, he says, smiling, “just a slow, grinding attrition really. It just wore on and on.” Finally, by mutual agreement, it was decided that he would move out for the months remaining before he begins medical school in the fall, and that his parents would, temporarily, foot the bill. “My parents are pretty good about it,” he acknowledges. “They don’t hold it over my head. I send my budget to my dad once a month; he asks me to cut back in places. I respect what he asks me, because he’s supporting me.”

Clare van de Erve, child of two successful lawyers, granddaughter of a one-time California state senator, spent much of the spring of 2009 walking the 800-kilometer Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. A religious studies major, van de Erve thought big, wanted her life story to encompass great things. After she completed college with honors a year later—graduating in only three years—she set her heart on becoming a preschool teacher; instead, she ended up waitressing for more than a year, able to live in a small one bedroom Land Park cottage only because she fought so much with her divorced parents when she lived with one or the other of them, that they instead ponied up a monthly allowance so that she could live alone.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2009, Mark Kashtan lived at home with his folks for a year. He now resides in an apartment until medical school; his parents are still paying the bills.


Living a new narrative

For Hanzlik and the other young men and women, all either recently graduated from UC or CSU campuses, or currently enrolled in part-time studies around the city, the times haven’t been kind. All of them are ambitious, motivated, worldly and intelligent. And all are stuck in a spider’s web of dependency, either living with their parents or in apartments where their parents pay the rent and utilities.

Not so long ago, middle-class coming-of-age movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and Kicking & Screaming focused on groups of recently graduated friends setting out on life’s adventures—moving to new cities, getting high-powered internships, earning money, partying hard. But today’s coming-of-age narrative is more somber. It’s about expectations curtailed and dreams muted. About reaching adulthood during a time of austerity. About wanting no more than the basics—a job, a home, a future. About adulthood that is, in many ways, deferred.

The first year after he graduated from Berkeley, Kashtan applied for one unpaid science and medicine-related internship after another. Tall and light-haired, mature in his speaking, confident of his place in life, he volunteered at a physical therapy clinic, worked for the California Medical Association, conducted research on vascular patches at a lab on the Travis Air Force Base. Kashtan’s father was a surgeon and his mother a retired nurse. He knew he wanted to embark on a medical career.

But before he could get into medical school, he needed to work, to gain experience—and, since paid jobs were so scarce, he figured he would take as much unpaid work as possible. Of course, the cost of that was independence. Kashtan had to live at home again.

“It got a little overwhelming. It was hard to meet new people, be your own person. I didn’t like going in reverse after I’d lived by myself for four years; being at home, nagged about putting air in my tires or doing my dishes.” His parents, he felt, “would stress out about really the smallest things—whether I had parked in front of the neighbors’ yard. You revert to the role when you were growing up. It clips your wings a little bit.”

Last June, the Pew Research Center reported that in the nearly three years since the recession started, young adults have taken a greater hit on the employment front than any other demographic group. Of college graduates who were going in reverse economically, one in three believed it would take at least six years for them to recover their lost ground. Nine percent of respondents to the polling said they’d had to move back in with their parents, and Pew reported that in the 18-29 age group that figure was a rather whopping 24 percent.

Of course, some of this isn’t new.

A certain proportion of grown children have always returned to the family nest, and the phenomenon has long fascinated America’s storytellers and chroniclers. Think The Graduate, the classic 1967 post-adolescent angst movie, in which Dustin Hoffman plays college graduate Benjamin Braddock, back in his parents’ home, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. With one humiliation piled atop the next, Ben has to model scuba-diving gear in the family pool for his parents’ friends; has to field well-meaning advice to embark on a career in “plastics”; and, of course, has to navigate the bizarre sexual terrain carved out for him by one Mrs. Robinson, and, later, her daughter—all the while fending off the inquiries from his rather clueless parents. Ben is an over-ripened adolescent, a grown man not quite able to make the final leap into adulthood.

But, Benjamin Braddock aside, what is new about today’s situation is the sheer scale of the stay-at-home-kids saga. And the fact that these aren’t youngsters who have struggled to move out in the first place—for many, they did move out a long while back, spent years learning how to live, think and act independently, but they are now being so battered by the sorry state of the economy that they are having to trade in their independence for free room and board with mom and pop. And, once back home, they’re struggling to find new employment; many are ending up taking near-minimum-wage jobs or casual work, and they are spending far longer getting back on their feet than they initially anticipated.

College graduate Rachel Menz, who has a part-time job with the State Personnel Board, was forced by lack of funds to live with her parents. Recently, she moved to a Midtown apartment with a roommate—but the result has been just more debt, she says.


Stay-at-homer kids

“I kind of lost myself at home,” recalls Dittberner nervously. “Had to put together ‘What do I want to do, where do I have to go?’ Work was impossible to find.”

Making matters worse, her parents seemed to forget she was an adult. “My mom was like, ‘You’re here!’ I’m the only child. They just get up in my business. Sometimes they can take advantage of that and feel like they have too much say. You just feel, ‘What’s the point of going to college, getting a degree?’ I try to be optimistic, not let it all get to me. I’m only 25; it’s ridiculous. But I won’t lie; there were times when it was just hard to get out of bed.”

Hoping to avoid sinking into a similar funk during the months when she was staying with one of her parents, van de Erve decided to take any job she could get. The first job was as a waitress at a Midtown restaurant. A lot of the friends from her graduating class at UC Santa Cruz had found themselves doing similar work. And the thought that she wasn’t the only one in this particular boat made her feel better. Then, while taking classes part-time at Sacramento City College to qualify as a preschool teacher, she took some work at a clothing store. Twelve hours per week; eight dollars per hour. But that still left her with a lot of time on her hands.

Artistic by temperament, her auburn hair cut flapper length, her couture low-key elegant, she spent much of her time painting, as well as making her little house look just-so. “I read a lot, I clean my house and I walk my dog—he’s just a mutt. My friends’ advice, and my mother’s advice, is ‘Enjoy it.’ But it’s difficult if you’re not sure you can pay all the bills. I rushed through college, and now there’s no structure. I’m pretty well-educated and young and driven, but the opportunities just aren’t out there. It’s hard.”

At one point, van de Erve banned her mother from visiting her home, because, she claimed, the older woman assumed that since she was paying the bills she had the right to redecorate her daughter’s home whenever and however she pleased. Van de Erve found her dependent situation to be “humbling,” but, she acknowledged, it was a whole heap better than living with her parents—a situation many adults from less affluent families are now facing as the new normal.

The stay-at-homer population started climbing even prior to the current recession—due, in part, to soaring house prices, which made it harder for people to leave the family nest. Between 2000 and 2007, Census Bureau data indicate that the number of older parents living with adult children (a slightly different statistic from that detailing the number of grown children living back home, but one that addresses the same trend) increased from 2.2 million to 3.6 million.

Now, post-bust, housing prices are lower, but it’s become almost impossible for young people to find decent-paying jobs. Last year, the journal Transition to Adulthood reported that between 1969 and 2004, the percentage of men in their 30s earning only poverty-level wages had doubled, from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. In the years since, as millions of decent jobs have vanished, and as the casualization of the workforce has intensified—union jobs and full-time work replaced by low-wage nonunion service sector jobs, hourly work and piece work—those numbers have likely gotten far worse. As a result, more young adults, including more young adults with jobs, have no choice but to stay in the family home.

Researchers at Columbia University recently estimated that more than 53 percent of 18-24 year olds nationwide are living with their parents. As mentioned earlier, the Pew Research Center, using a slightly different age bracket, estimates nearly one quarter of 18-29 year olds have returned to the parental nest during the recession. And a smaller, but still significant, number of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 are also returning to their parents’ dwellings—and, according to the Columbia study, that number has increased by more than a third since the country sank into recession in 2007. Indeed, so prevalent has this phenomenon become that bloggers have set up entire websites—like—to deal with challenges created by the “boomerang generation” of kids who keep on coming back.

Young adults who used to hit the open road if opportunity didn’t shine on them in the town they grew up are staying put in record numbers. They can’t afford to move, and even if they could, the jobs aren’t there to move to.

In January, the Census Bureau released numbers that indicated that a smaller percentage of young adults are working than at any time since before the Second World War; not surprisingly, mobility has taken a hit. Fewer Americans are packing up and moving to a new state to start afresh than at any time since the government started tracking this information in 1948, and that goes for young people in particular—in 2010 only 2.1 percent of college graduates made such a move.

Life gets better yet

In mid-January, things finally started looking up for Clare van de Erve. After searching for preschool work for months, she was finally hired on to teach at a local kindergarten. With more money coming in, she was planning to move out of the little cottage her parents bankrolled and into a home with her boyfriend. They would, she said proudly, now be able to pay their own bills. “I think 2011 is going to be a really good year,” she declares. “2010 was rough—coming out of school and not having a definite path of where you’re supposed to go. It was my first experience of having obstacles in my life.”

Katie Hanzlik began her internship in the governor’s office. And Mark Kashtan polished up his résumé in anticipation of starting medical school.

Could things be slowly turning around for the boomerang kids? They seem to be finding their sea legs, carving out their own narratives. Perhaps this has to do with the broader economy improving slightly—after all, in June, the same Pew Research Center report that found young people nationwide had taken the greatest employment knocks also found that fully 85 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds expected their financial situation to improve in 2011. Or perhaps they’re simply that much older and wiser a year or two out of college, more able to take advantage of the chances presented them.

“We had a couple years to prepare for this,” says Rachel Menz quietly. “We all knew we’d probably move home, try to find a job. People are kind of accepting how it is; they understand how the world works, that there are ups and downs, that they have to ride it out.”