The great pandemic-era return to the nest is proving hard on young adults and parents

Hindustan Times | By
Nov 21, 2020 11:14 PM IST

The children are older, perhaps wiser, but mostly, not richer. The parents are having to renegotiate their lives too. Five young people tell Wknd what it’s been like trying to fit back in.

It’s being called the boomerang phenomenon. Millions of young adults around the world are returning to the home of a parent or grandparent, their work or education hit by the turbulence of the pandemic.

(HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
(HT Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

The last time the world saw a return to the nest on this scale was in the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And those assuming this would largely be a big-city phenomenon in India are mistaken — over the past three decades, but especially over the past decade-and-half, there has been a steady stream of young people, leaving homes in non-metro, small-town, even rural India, to make a career in Delhi or Mumbai or Bengaluru or Chennai.

Buffeted first by the global financial crisis of the late 2000s (which did not leave India entirely unscathed), and then by the country’s own economic travails over the past few years, many of these young people have not witnessed the kind of sharp increase in incomes that those who started their careers in the decade of the 1990s, or even the early 2000s, did. Now, at least some of them are going back home — older, perhaps wiser, but mostly, not richer.

“People in their 20s and 30s are returning with baggage, their understanding of life and social behaviour changed, and in many cases parents are not ready for this. The tension that results is exacerbated by the fact that there is no timeline,” says Manish Jha, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, whose research centres on migration and the middle class.

Both sides admit the struggle is real. It’s hard to be back in a place you left, back in a life you worked hard to change, often without your partner, forced to hide parts of who you are — whether that’s an alternative sexuality or frequent Tinder use, smoking or eating forbidden foods.

For the parents, it’s hard losing the lives they built for themselves in their empty or emptier nest. Even worse, as one mother put it, is having to watch your child fret for a home that is not this one, pine for people that aren’t you, and moan about being “stuck” in the place where you live.


In general, one of the alleviating factors of life in the pandemic is the reality that if you are finding your life constrained, so is the rest of the world. But this logic doesn’t help when you and your parent are screaming at each other, again, because someone left the fridge door open again (and you both know that what you’re really saying is I wish I weren’t here, and what they’re really saying is, I know you do).

There’s no data on the prevalence of the phenomenon in India but a new study by the Pew Research Center based on data from the monthly Census Bureau surveys in the US found that by July, 52% of young adults (defined as those aged 18 to 24) were living with a parent or grandparent, up from 47% in February. In all, the number of adults (across age groups) living with parents or grandparents grew from 24 million to 26.6 million between February and July, a spike of nearly 11%. The numbers in India are unlikely to be vastly different.

The hardest hit, by all estimates, are the young adults just starting out. They are most likely to have lost their jobs, most likely to have little to no financial cushion, and most likely to move back home. A report titled Generation COVID and Social Mobility released by the London School of Economics in October found that young workers were twice as likely to have lost their jobs than their seniors, with employment and earnings losses greater for women.

As long-term plans spin out of control, researchers are already trying to predict how families will rethink their lives to cope with the new reality — especially given that the number of people returning to the nest had been growing anyway, since the economic downturn of 2008.

“A generation that built their own lives elsewhere, many of them the first in their families to do so, are returning to parental homes that have remained unchanged all the while that they have been away. So now it is they who will need to adapt, adjust,” says Ravi Kumar, associate professor of sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi. “This return is also potentially interesting because the longer it endures, the more likely that the family as a unit and the house as a structure will both need to re-model themselves with new rules, new spaces, separate living arrangements and even kitchens.”

What are the changes already being effected in the lives of five such young adults and their families? Take a look.

‘I can’t date, but marriage is a favourite topic of conversation’

Ramandeep Wazir, 28

Program manager with an ed-tech company in Mumbai; returned home to Jammu with his cat, in August

Ramandeep Wazir with his mother, Ranjeet Kaur. He loves his parents, he says, but misses the freedom he had to socialise and live as he pleased in Mumbai.
Ramandeep Wazir with his mother, Ranjeet Kaur. He loves his parents, he says, but misses the freedom he had to socialise and live as he pleased in Mumbai.

I became a new person in the last seven years. Mumbai is a great place to be young. I arrived in the city at 21. It was there that I learnt it was okay to voice my opinions. I had my horizons widened. I learnt to hold forth on different subjects and discovered that I’m a liberal and that this was not just good but necessary.

I became a regular at karaoke clubs. On my walls was a collage of words and images that were important to me (and a couple of cheeky posters). These are memories you can’t pack in a bag. When the pandemic hit, I moved back with my parents because it didn’t make sense to pay the massive rents when I could work from anywhere — especially once my flatmate had moved home and the entire rent was on me.

Home means mum and dad; my younger brother is in the army so he is away most of the time. From returning home for two weeks a year, I’ve now been here four months. Our office won’t reopen before March.

Of course my parents and I love each other, but it’s not an ideal situation. I sometimes feel stuck because society here is more conservative. There are limited opportunities to socialise. The dating scene is almost non-existent, though marriage is a favourite topic of conversation at home. My childhood friends drop in sometimes but I’m a little tired of having conversations about government jobs and other people’s families.

Dad wants to set me up in a business here but I’m out of here by March, hopefully.

The good thing is I’ve been able to save quite a bit of money. I went on a camping trip recently and met some really cool people. It’s nice to be taken care of too.

Work-wise, there is always the danger of mom walking in with a plate of sliced apples while I’m in a meeting, but we manage. I just miss my wall. I moved to Jammu with my cat, Billo, whom I had adopted in Mumbai. Having her around helps. I tell her we will move back to Mumbai soon. As soon as duty calls.

Simran Varma, 26

Studying for a Master’s in Education in Delhi; went home to Lucknow for Holi in March and has been there since

Simran Varma with her mother Naheed Varma. “I‘ve realised I’m not that different from her. We are moved by and stand up for similar things,” Simran says.
Simran Varma with her mother Naheed Varma. “I‘ve realised I’m not that different from her. We are moved by and stand up for similar things,” Simran says.

I’ve always been very close to my parents. But after my dad passed away four years ago, it became very hard to be here. There are just too many memories. So I would always come for a brief visit. My life was on campus in Delhi.

In March, I came home for a brief visit and found that my mother had changed a lot too. She is a career counsellor and it was like I had never noticed before how hard working and enterprising she is. She writes scripts for short films and now has an active creative life. It was eye-opening.

I also realised how difficult these four years have been for her, constantly defending my decision to work and study in another city and live alone there.

You only understand these things when you’re living with the other person; parents often keep these things from you so you’re not hurt.

Earlier, I was also always in vacation mode at home. I would dash in and out. This time, I’m doing little chores. I even changed a light bulb that had stopped working years ago. It seems like a small thing but it feels like I am reclaiming my home. My mother, I think, is trying to do the same thing. She keeps changing the upholstery and moving the furniture around. I think it’s her way of trying to move on.

In the pandemic, we learnt to respect each other’s space. I also realised I am not that different from her. We are moved by and stand up for similar things.

My studies, however, have taken a bit of a hit. I miss my friends in Delhi. I miss my classes and teachers. In Lucknow, I feel completely cut off from all that. With mum at work, I’m alone a lot of the time. Sometimes I remember we used to be a family of three, and the house feels very empty again.

‘This time, when I leave, I know I’m really going home’

Shruti Bijnoria, 30

Theatre actor in Mumbai; returned home to Delhi in March

“Living here all these months, I have realised that this will never be my permanent home. I left my life in Mumbai, and got stuck here without warning,” Bijnoria says.
“Living here all these months, I have realised that this will never be my permanent home. I left my life in Mumbai, and got stuck here without warning,” Bijnoria says.

My dog was unwell so I came home to Delhi for five days in March and have been in my parents’ home since. Living here all these months, I have realised that this will never be my permanent home. I left my life there and got stuck here without warning, without work.

Living together means I’ve had to give my family access to my mental space, which can be challenging at times. Being away from them has given me independence, and back here I have to be their daughter again, who should listen and obey. Old tensions resurface. We are in each other’s faces all the time, saying things in the heat of the moment that we may regret later.

I find myself in the same arguments I had with my parents 10 years ago. The perennial ones — when am I going to “settle down”? Why can’t I get a “regular job”? “What is the point of being involved in theatre? Why do I need to spend so much on my dog?

It all comes from a place of concern I guess. But I know now that not all concern is productive for my spirit.

This has given me time to reconnect with my siblings. I have also tried to reopen some conversations with my dad and sometimes I feel maybe I’ve got through to him. It feels like a step just to be talking openly about some of the things we disagree on.

On the work front it has been really tough. There have been days when I’ve felt like such a loser. I sometimes I sit in my room and wonder how I got to this point.I began to doubt if I would ever get back to earning enough to live in Mumbai again.

I know now that my life is there, so I’m bracing for a struggle but heading back with a small loan, my dog, and a really small project in hand. It’s a big risk, but one worth taking. I will live in a much smaller home there. But I have missed everything about it, even my cutlery. Being locked down has made me realise how much I value my space and mostly how much I miss my partner. So, this time when I go back, I know I’m going home.

‘My village is full of old people. It’s nice to feel needed’

Manu V Mathew, 30

PhD student at Delhi University; returned to Alleppey in August

While it is true that a return home at 30 makes one feel half adult and half child, it’s also nice to be in a place where neighbours greet each other and always stop for a chat, Mathew says.
While it is true that a return home at 30 makes one feel half adult and half child, it’s also nice to be in a place where neighbours greet each other and always stop for a chat, Mathew says.

I decided I should go home when it was declared in June that only Delhi citizens would have access to healthcare. In a way I was relieved to go; after my flatmate left, it had become quite hard living alone, paying the rent and doing all the chores.

I’m less lonely and more comfortable at home, but it has thrown my academic schedule and some of my personal plans off track. These were supposed to be the last six months of my PhD programme. When the administration restarts the University in February or March they will require all paperwork, including my progress report, to be signed by my guide, who is retiring in March and will be moving out of Delhi.

To be out of touch with him in these crucial months is quite hard.

I am also informally engaged to an assistant professor in West Bengal. Our two families were supposed to meet and now that has been delayed. What could have been finalised this year, will now happen next year, one hopes.

But in many ways it’s been so nice being back home. It’s very nice to be back in my old room with my parents just a room away. It’s nice to be able to walk up to the terrace and look at the village early in the morning or as the sun sets. Neighbours greet each other and talk a bit if their paths cross.

I find that my father has relaxed his ground rules. There is no curfew now, no rules for how long I can use the phone. My mother is ill, so having me around has also eased the pressure on the rest of the family.

While it is true that a return home at 30 makes one feel half adult and half child, it is also true that our parents are dependent on us. I am needed here at home. My village is now only old people in old houses. Besides me there are just a couple of young men; the rest are all in the Gulf (West Asia). Should there be any emergency, my being there is of help to my family, my neighbours.

‘I’m the one curious about their lives now’

Pratik, 30

Content creator with an NGO in Delhi; returned to Mumbai in August

I did my Masters in Linguistics at JNU and so I’d been living in Delhi since 2011. That’s nine years away from home.

When the lockdown hit, the NGO I work with slashed my salary by 30% and then doubled the work. Rumours began circulating that people would be let go. I decided enough was enough. I was paying nearly half my remaining salary in rent. I returned home to Navi Mumbai.

I live with my parents and my brother and give French classes online. The good thing about staying with my parents other than the obvious financial benefit, is that I am forming new relationships with them.

A lot of issues we had in the past have been overcome. For example, if I end up swearing when on the phone with friends, that doesn’t ruffle feathers. They have become more concerned with their own lives and less obsessed with mine, so now I’m the one asking questions and actually curious about what they’re up to.

They used to grill me so much about my friends, especially the female friends. They would keep asking what “my plan in life” was. That anxiety has eased.

I’ve never had a full-time job till recently but I realised staying with them now, as an adult, just how much they enjoy theirs. My father works at a bank; ma is a researcher. If I wake up late, it doesn’t pass without comment. But it doesn’t disturb them now. This mostly has to do with them accepting me as I have turned out.

We have started playing carom together again, something we used to do when I was younger. My parents and I now chat quite a bit. Just chat, no agenda. It feels like we are talking more like equals.

I miss Delhi but I’m glad the pandemic sent me home. I don’t intend to leave for at least a year or two.

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    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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