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Originally published Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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20-somethings go home to regroup

The share of Americans living in multigenerational households is the highest it's been since the 1950s, the Pew Research Center found. The trend is being driven by "boomerang kids," so named because they moved out, then moved back in.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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I sympathize with these young adults having to move back in with their folks, something... MORE
Jesus------ this is really sad. After I left home, I only came back a couple wks... MORE
Anyone teaching HS senior's should make these articles required reading. It may not... MORE

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GO AHEAD, ask Joseph Sumi.

Ask him what it's like to graduate from Shorecrest High School in 2005, go to college, get married, move to Idaho with your new wife and no job, equal parts hope and anxiety gunning the motor of a '98 Volkswagen.

Ask him, and a story of our economy tumbles out, equal parts familiar and unexpected, of a college grad who could find only work at a drugstore; who was then laid off from said drugstore; who, after getting pummeled by the worst job market for young people since World War II, decided last November to move in with The Parents. Except they weren't his parents. They were his in-laws. And they lived in John Day, Ore. Population 1,700 and change.

Sumi, 25, is practical about the move. He and his wife were broke. Her parents own Len's Drug, the town's only pharmacy; they could offer the comforts of both work and home. Plus, they had a spare room with a separate bathroom.

So just before Thanksgiving, Sumi and his wife hauled their stuff to the mountainous ranchlands of Eastern Oregon and settled into a bedroom 10 feet away from where his in-laws slept. Sumi started work as a pharmacy technician. His wife, Ree, managed the accounts.

The couple figured they'd look for their own place ASAP, but never did. It was too much of a hassle, Sumi says. Besides, the family — cue the horror of latchkey-reared Gen-Xers — actually enjoys each other's company. They even took a spring vacation together to Las Vegas.

Weird? Not so much anymore. Turns out that for a lot of twentysomethings, the stigma of coming back to Mom and Dad's ain't what it used to be.

Consider this: Among adults age 18 to 34, a quarter migrated home in recent years after living on their own because of the rough economy, according to findings released in February by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

A Times analysis of census data shows that Washington fell in line with these national figures. Nearly 25 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds here live at home.

In fact, the share of Americans living in multigenerational households is the highest it's been since the 1950s, Pew found. The trend is being driven by "boomerang kids," so named because they moved out, then moved back in.

And how is all of this coziness playing out? Surprisingly well. Of the 25-to-34-year-olds who circled back, 78 percent said they were happy about it, according to the center.

Say wha — ?

It used to be that 18 was our country's sea-parting, hallelujah age, the year when kids bolted for the door and parents could exhale a deep, collective sigh of relief. Moms and dads might be called on to help with the occasional financial crisis. But the dirty deeds of parenting were over and done with.

Some parents felt so adrift with this newfound freedom, psychologists penned a named for it — Empty Nest Syndrome. Now, to the surprise of many, a new generation is flocking back.

A trifecta of forces has helped swing the pendulum: skyrocketing costs of living, an unrelenting dearth of jobs and, perhaps most important, tectonic shifts in the parent/child relationship.

Today's young job-seekers, marinated in childhoods of kid-centered preciousness — all hail the Millennials! — were the first to grow up in an era of The Cherished Child.

They tend to share more with their Boomer parents. And their parents, eager not to replicate the emotional chasm they felt with their own Silent Generation mothers and fathers, have nurtured these open-door bonds.

But underneath all the chummy family dinners and the my-parents-are-totally-cool-with-me-living-here dialogue flows a quiet current of shame. Listen for it in the explanations tinged with self-deprecating humor. Or even in the dead air.

Some of the people we contacted for this story refused to talk. Others who initially agreed backed out. "I don't want it to be the first thing to pop up when people Google me," one said.

Which makes sense. Because it tells us something we already know, that, despite all the talk about delayed adulthood and headlines asking "Why are 20-somethings taking so long to grow up?" most self-respecting American adults don't want to move back in with their parents. And most parents don't want to block their kids' path to independence.

Everyone's just trying to make the best of a stagnant economy.

MEET TREVOR Gunderson.

He's 25, 6 foot 3, a former football player, 2005 graduate of Hazen High School and 2009 graduate of Eastern Washington University. After a year of bartending, he landed a contract job in April at a tech company.

He's one of the lucky ones, he says. He has a career-track gig, savings in the bank and — total score on his part — great roommates.

The woman he lives with makes delicious meals and texts him to see if he'll be back in time for dinner. The other guy works from home, so he's often holed up in his office.

"My roommates are married," he likes to tell people. "One of them cooks a lot. It's awesome."

It's a joke and an admission at once. Gunderson has been living at his parents' Renton home for more than two years. After graduating from Eastern, he had no money or job. He moved back in because "that was the default plan."

The same went for most of his friends. They all showed up at college with "ego-filled dreams. You think, 'We're going to take the world by the throat.' . . . I can't think of anyone who's been super-successful."

He says this on a March afternoon inside a South Lake Union Starbucks, the grind of an espresso machine scraping the air. It's a couple weeks before Gunderson starts his contract job, so he's got time to burn. Neighboring tables are populated by his brethren — young, coffee-swilling, denim-clad technophiles not in any particular rush.

Gunderson describes the benefits of living at home: There's no rent, no curfew, no food or utility bills. (He does pay for his car and gas, though.) Another upside: He's been able to save money instead of eking out an existence in some squalid apartment and "eating Ramen six nights a week."

The downside of living at home? Well . . . living at home. He has a girlfriend now, but when he was single, he didn't bring a date home unless it was something more than a passing fling. Not worth the bother, he says. He hopes to move out this summer.

"I'm ready," he says. "I guess that's what being in the real world is. It's getting to complain about bills, (being) stressed out and overdosed on coffee. I look forward to it."

And his parents?

They didn't want to be interviewed.

KATHERINE SLACK'S parents didn't mind. The Bellevue couple were happy to share their thoughts, along with warm smiles and banana nut muffins.

The Slacks have a nice home, a comfy home. Womb-like even. You get the feeling you could curl up on their overstuffed couch in front of the flat-screen TV and stay awhile.

Katherine Slack has. Three years, to be exact. She arrived jobless in March 2009 after getting her history degree from Western Washington University and hasn't left.

OK — not entirely true. There was that six months when she moved to an apartment in Renton with two other girls. Let's just say that didn't end well.

So she is home again, at 25, answering phones for a cruise-ship line and earning a paralegal certificate at the University of Washington. Katherine served on a jury once and was intrigued by the legal system. One day while her dad was at his doctor's office, he spotted a magazine ad for the UW program.

Suddenly, something clicked.

"I had this epiphany. Like a lightbulb went off," she says. "I thought, 'Wow. I could be making a contribution to society. I should get on this.' "

Her father, Leonard, is a retired Boeing engineer. His wife, Debbie, is a homemaker. Their directive to Katherine and her two brothers was to "do something you love."

As they've watched their children struggle in this economy, so, too, have they.

Leonard: "You think your kid's going to go to college and they're going to get a degree in something and that will open doors for them on a career path . . . But it's really tough these days to get that initial position.

"If there's a frustration, it's a frustration that we can't help more. But we can't. We can only do so much, and it's up to her the rest of the way. She has to figure it out herself."

Katherine's trying. The competition she faces is fierce. She got a taste of it at a recent job fair when she tried to hand over her résumé and got bulldozed by throngs of other students. That was a downer. In the same breath, she's optimistic and determined to show how hard she's willing to work.

She watched the economy nosedive when she was a senior in college. Even though there was always the safety net of living with her parents, she didn't want to take advantage of them.

So when she moved back, she offered to pay her parents $200 a month to help with groceries and utilities. That worked for them.

"It makes me feel better," Katherine says. "I don't want to feel like I'm totally mooching."

When adult children come back home, the world order under that roof inherently shifts. The children, after all, are no longer children. Families are forced to figure out a new dynamic.

Debbie: "Our view is, we're not raising her anymore. We want her to be able to continue with her own life and make her own decisions. It's just really important that she knows we respect her as her own woman."

Basic rules were discussed. Clean up after dinner, after yourself, take care of the cat and, in general, be respectful. When Katherine had a boyfriend, for instance, she hung out with him at his place. All the better to avoid those awkward moments, she says, giggling.

In a perfect world, Leonard and Debbie would love for their daughter to be on her own. But the economy has schooled them all in patience. They're making the most of their time together and even got season tickets to the Sounders. During a recent game at CenturyLink Field, they cheer and whoop and laugh in the stands and it's actually, authentically fun.

There is no mention of jobs or apartments or all the garage space taken up by Katherine's unpacked boxes, which will go with her when she leaves. Some day.

AND Joseph Sumi? He and Ree left John Day, Ore., last month to move in with Joseph's mom in Shoreline.

But it's not what you think. Because on June 1, the couple will board a flight from Seattle to Kiev, Ukraine, where they've signed up for two years of missionary work with the Church of the Nazarene. Joseph's going to pursue pastoral training. Ree, an accounting major, will take on administrative duties for the church.

It's not totally out of left field; both are graduates of Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho. Still, this wasn't originally in the cards. They left college determined to find decent, satisfying jobs that matched their education levels. Their needs were pretty basic: They wanted their own place. They wanted to afford cable. They wanted, as a young, newly married couple, to feel blissfully independent.

But that wasn't in the cards, either. So they adapted. They learned to take jobs where they could, which is how they ended up in Korea for a short stint teaching English to help pay down $45,000 in college loans. Which is how, when the opportunity to go on a mission came up earlier this year, offering the chance to do meaningful work and learn Russian, both of them looked at each other and said: Let's do it.

It took some fundraising, but they got enough in donations, $30,000 and counting, to stay for two years. They sold their car and started purging — clothes, books, more clothes, more books — and arrived in Shoreline mid-April with three suitcases and a guitar.

On a recent evening, the couple passes bowls of spaghetti and Caesar salad around the dinner table with Joseph's family. No one talks about the fact that it's one of the last meals they'll have together for a long time.

What they do talk about is the future.

And, of course, the past. Because that is how they got here. Cannonballed from university life into the recession. Rejected from jobs they never imagined they'd want. Humbled after moving in with Ree's parents.

This last part, Ree says, still embarrasses her. Nothing against her mom and dad, she's quick to add. But the move made her feel like she hadn't grown up yet. It was a lesson in humility.

As for what awaits them abroad?

"I have no fear of what's out there anymore," Joseph says. "Bring it on."

Sonia Krishnan is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. She can be reached at 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

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