Cultural differences regarding the “accordion family”

A new sociology book highlights the phenomenon of the accordion family by contrasting different cultural approaches to the issue:

The global economic recession is a big driver of this phenomenon but hardly the only one. Cultural attitudes about “boomerang kids’’ vary widely. In Japan, which has been in recession for two decades, both parents and their adult children are filled with shame, and turn inward. For the Japanese, writes Newman, “personal character takes center stage,’’ not abstract explanations about diminishing economic opportunity. The Japanese “retain a strong normative sense of what is appropriate and what is deviant in the evolution from youth to adult,’’ Newman writes, and boomerang kids represent deviance (the Japanese often refer to boomerangs as “parasites’’), bringing social stigma on the entire family.

Italy is a completely different story. Italians, especially Italian men, have for centuries remained in the family home until they get married, which may find them there into their 30s or beyond. Newman interviews various 30-something Italian men living at home who quite simply don’t see a problem. The parents Newman interviews also don’t consider it dysfunctional, generally enjoying the company of their adult children. There is no social stigma attached, writes Newman, since “37 percent of [Italian] men age thirty have never lived away from home.’’

In the United States, we are somewhere in between Japanese-level stigma and Italian-style acceptance. “American attitudes are more conditional than other cultures,’’ explains Newman. Parents will support a boomerang adult child who has a plan, a way forward to improve life (e.g., through additional education, training, or an internship), but will object if their adult child is using the family home as an escape from the world.

These are some interesting contrasts across these countries. The American case in the middle here has me thinking about moral symbolic boundaries. The idea here would be that young adults living at home are fine as long as they can justify this move and reassure their parents that this is a step toward their eventual success and moving out. If they can’t make this case, this is seen as mooching. This fits with a larger American idea that we are willing to help people who also seem willing to help themselves.

I wonder if Newman also tracks these attitudes over time as perhaps these are relatively recent developments to adjust to a changing industrialized, globalized world. What aspects of a society or culture directly lead to these rules about who can live at home?

Another note from this review. Here is a paragraph that sums up the work:

Newman interviewed hundreds of boomerang adults and their parents for this accessible book, which effectively, even entertainingly, combines rigorous, statistics-driven social science with personal accounts to provide a vivid portrait of what’s happening globally.

Here is my translation of this paragraph: “It is an academic book that doesn’t read like one, meaning that you will be convinced by the data (hundreds of interviews!) but it has plenty of personal accounts to keep you entertained.” Perhaps that is too cynical. But this does offer some insights into how the general public tends to read social science research. Data, numbers in particular, can’t be too overwhelming. The book still has to be entertaining in the end, even if it is making an important point. Stories, whether they are personal accounts or good examples, are very helpful. None of these things are necessarily bad things to do yet one wonders whether the larger point of the work is muted by having to meet these requirements.

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