The Pandemic Prompted Them to Return Home—Now They’re Staying

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Last week, a deadly strain of the H7N9 bird flu infected eight new people in China. The outbreak—the worst since the virus first appeared in 2013—prompted Chinese authorities to close live poultry markets and mass slaughter the animals. The disease has now killed 34 people, mostly in the cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou. In response, thousands of Chinese citizens have opted to stay home.

When the H1N1 flu appeared in Singapore, Asia’s first responders—doctors and nurses—were among the first to sicken and die. Shortly afterwards, the first local case of the new strain was reported in Jakarta. Before long, the disease had spread across the region, eventually causing more than 10,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). So, in some ways, it should be no surprise that many of those who contracted H1N1 decided to stay in their home countries instead of returning to the region’s burgeoning multinational workforce.

Megan Riner was living alone in a tiny studio apartment in Portland, Oregon, when the pandemic broke out. I worked nights at a news station, so it was hard to make friends. After her job became virtual through Covid, she rarely left her apartment, which added to her sense of isolation.

Riner, 25, decided to leave Portland in July and return to her old room in her mother’s house in Indianapolis, her hometown. This decision shocked her: All she wanted after college was to leave Indianapolis and start her own life.

More than nine months later, she works in digital media at a local call center. She had just moved out of her mother’s house and into her own apartment less than a mile away, in the building where her good friend from grade school lived. She’d rather stay in Indianapolis than return to her old life in Portland and sit alone in that tiny studio.

I feel so much better now that I know I’m close to my friends and my support system, she says.

Mrs. Riner is sitting with her mother, Maureen Riner.


Anna Powell Denton for The Wall Street Journal

During the pandemic, young people from all over the country flocked to their parents. Some stay because they appreciate the security and benefits of staying close to their families – while still remaining familiar with their hometown in these uncertain times. More than half of 18- to 29-year-olds moved in with their parents after the coronavirus began spreading in the United States in the early 2020s, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of monthly Census Bureau data. This figure surpasses the previous peak reached during the Great Depression.

According to Ashley Basil Oeken, president of Engage! Cleveland, a nonprofit organization focused on the career and development of young adults. Two months after the pandemic, she started getting calls from people who had moved and were looking for a place to stay.

She said these boomerangs – people returning to their hometowns – are usually 30 years old or younger. But now more and more 20-year-olds are coming back. Turn it on! Cleveland has launched a social media ad campaign targeting young professionals in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus and Pittsburgh to lure them to Cleveland.

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It is unclear whether this increase in the number of young adults living with their parents is a temporary, pandemic-related acceleration of a trend that has already occurred, or whether it heralds a permanent change in behavior, said Karen Fingerman, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. But it’s clear that the bonds within families have grown stronger over the past year, she says. The influx of young people is breathing new life into many small towns and increasing the resources for growth and development.

I feel connected to the local community, says Aleah Laforce, who returned to her mother’s home in Brooklyn, New York, in March 2020 after a pandemic interrupted her senior year at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since returning, she has been active in her church and volunteering with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Laforce, 22, began a series of virtual internships with organizations in Washington, D.C., where she planned to live after college. But instead of going to Washington, D.C. to find a steady job, she now wants to stay and work in Brooklyn. It’s good business sense: With $30,000 in student debt and a desire to work for a non-profit or government organization, she can save money by living in her mother’s house.

Alea Laforce returned to her mother’s home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in March 2020 after a pandemic interrupted her senior year at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Miah Nijoni McCarthy

Returning home stems from the need to look for ways to gain maximum security in uncertain times. The goal is to achieve safety, says Jacqueline K. Gollan, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Medical School in Chicago. Exercise is a coping mechanism activated by a biological response to the uncertainty of a pandemic – a response to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the subsequent release of stress hormones.

Neil Rose, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, attributes this change to changing expectations. Instead of valuing independence, work and mobility, young adults feel a new need to feel anchored. By spending less time in cars, on planes and with distant acquaintances, we force ourselves to rethink the balance of our lives, he says.

Shira Olson and Scott McPhee, both 29, thought they would spend just a few weeks at Mrs. Olson’s parents’ house in Cranston, R.I., when they moved out of their New York City apartment in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

Eventually they lived in Mrs. Olson’s old room for several months, both continuing to do virtual work. They had a big wedding planned in December, but it was postponed until July. Then they returned to New York.

Shira Olson and Scott McPhee, both 29, on their wedding day last July. A couple moved from New York to Rhode Island during the pandemic and decided to stay.


Nicole Marcelle Photography

I was in tears, I was homesick and I missed my parents. All I wanted was to be with my parents, Olson said. The couple lasted a few months, then broke their lease in New York and returned to Rhode Island, where they plan to live in their own apartment. When Mr. McPhee returns to his tutoring job, he’ll look for a new one nearby. We had that moment that being with family is so special. It is a gift, said Mrs. Olson.

For Benjamin Becker, help with childcare was the main reason for returning. The 29-year-old sales manager and his wife, Kathy Becker, moved six hours from Chicago to Cleveland in April with their 10-day-old son and moved in with his wife’s parents. Now her own parents, who live nearby, and her mother-in-law share babysitting duties.

The fact that our parents help us every day is a real blessing, Becker says. They knew they wanted to live near their families someday, but they assumed they would stay in Chicago for at least two or three more years. They just bought a house in Cleveland.

Benjamin, Kathy and Levi Becker, seen here in February in Naples, Florida, moved from Chicago to their hometown of Cleveland during the pandemic, where they have since purchased a home.


Emily Parish Photography

Suddenly, it became a very attractive place to live, says Jessica Behringer, a 33-year-old attorney who also moved back to Cleveland from Chicago, where her parents and mother-in-law live. With her husband, a three-year-old child, a baby born five months before the pandemic and her dog, she stayed in her parents’ house for five months.

In October, Beringer got a new job at a Cleveland law firm, and they bought a house in Shaker Heights, the neighborhood where she grew up. She likes having more space, but she misses her mom when she cooks every night. We are relieved to be home now, she says.

Jessica and Daniel Beringer and their son Thomas moved from Chicago to their home in Cleveland during the pandemic, where they both grew up.


Katie Osgood/Little Bear Photography

On the eve of her graduation from the University of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia last spring, Ahmadzai looked at job postings from pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey and central Pennsylvania. She lived with her parents in their childhood home not far from there. When the pandemic broke out, all their plans changed. Instead of searching for that job, she found one a few minutes away. She decided that her younger sister, who was entering high school that year, needed a home to help her with virtual school.

This change in attitude surprised her, as she usually likes to expose herself to new experiences and loves change. But, she says, it’s a time for precious family time.

Share your ideas

How has your relationship with your family changed in the past year? Join the discussion below.

Email Nancy Keates at [email protected].

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