Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: The Accordion Family

Katherine Newman's book The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition probes a number of contemporary issues ranging from family dynamics to national economic and immigration policies. The term "accordion family" refers to the idea of households stretching, like an accordion, as grown children live in their family domiciles longer than they have in previous generations. The severe economic downturn of recent years and the continuing lack of jobs for young adults in many countries has likely exacerbated the trend.

Though accordion families seem to be a constant across developed countries (except for Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which provide government benefits for young adults to secure their own housing), parents in different nations appear to have greatly divergent attitudes toward grown children living so long at home. Japanese parents are horrified, Italian and Spanish parents are more comfortable, and U.S. parents accept the situation as long as their children are attempting to better themselves educationally and occupationally.

Roughly the first half of the book establishes these national differences in depth, with extensive use of excerpts from interviews conducted by Newman's international team of researchers in the different nations. I personally found this part of the book a little dense and tedious, driving home the basic points repeatedly.

Fortunately, I did not give up on the book halfway through. The second half applies a more analytic outlook, examining several key issues in family studies:

*Even though many parents and grown children enjoy each other's companionship and the increasingly egalitarian interactions that take place, what are potential disadvantages of grown children remaining home?

*Will some parents find that the expenses of maintaining an accordion family threaten their retirement savings?

*Do accordion-family dynamics differ depending on whether the grown child is male or female? One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following: "While boomerang women are just as capable of sloth as their brothers or boyfriends, there does seem to be a gender problem afoot here. Young men seem far more likely to drag their feet when it comes to striking out on their own, and they seem less inclined to worry that they are putting their parents, especially their mothers, to a lot of trouble..." (p. 142).

*Is there an inherent trade-off between economic independence and social-affectional bonds? In other words, do the government policies that allow children in Nordic countries to move out of the family home at a young age (potentially a good thing) have the unintended consequence of making members of the different generations more socially distant from each other? Or conversely, does the banding together of accordion families in response to economic difficulties (potentially a stressful experience) promote emotional closeness?

*Whether grown children's boomerang lifestyle is a cause, consequence, or correlate of delayed marriage and childbearing, low birthrates threaten the future tax base for countries' old-age pension plans (e.g., Social Security in the U.S.). As Newman discusses, the nations featured in the book vary widely in their openness to immigration, which (intentionally or not) allows high-immigration countries to maintain their population size. Native-born residents' attitudes toward the immigrants sometimes create a new source of friction, however.

*When boomerang parents' own parents begin to require extensive caregiving, will the challenges of "sandwich generation" status intensify? (What would the field of family studies be like without all these cute nicknames?)

I think it's clear that governments and families in many countries face important long-term decisions and Newman does an excellent job of framing them. I will be interested to see if future authors extend the analysis beyond the narrow band of economically advanced countries examined in The Accordion Family to a broader array of nations.

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