Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in, wrote Robert Frost. Like so much else from the pen of that flinty New Englander, this is a quintessentially American idea, as several years abroad have taught me. To people in other parts of the world, home is the place where, till you choose to leave it, they will not kick you out.
Italy’s highest appeals court recently ruled that a father must keep paying child support to his 29-year-old son, even though the younger man has a law degree and a $200,000 trust fund, and has turned down several job offers. According to the judges, the son has the right to parental support until he finds work appropriate to “his specific qualifications, his attitudes and his real interests.”
No wonder Italy has the lowest fertility rate in recorded history. At these prices, 1.18 children is all anyone here can afford.
The right-to-loaf angle was what made the decision newsworthy in the States, but many American readers must also have marveled at the fact of a grown son still living with his divorced mother.
In Italy, though, that detail is barely worth mentioning. An estimated 70 percent of 29-year-old men live with their parents, according to the national statistics agency (as reported last week in Italy Daily). The proportion of stay-at-home women is much lower, presumably because they marry earlier.
I don’t know the numbers for other European countries, but my experience in Spain suggests that the practice is at least as common there. During the year I lived in Madrid, I was repeatedly struck by the size and elegance of the apartments inhabited by people in my early-thirties age bracket — until I remembered that the apartments belonged to their mothers and fathers. Several of my Spanish friends, though gainfully employed, thought nothing of sharing a bedroom with at least one sibling.
Whenever I asked about this custom, stay-at-home Spaniards always told me that they would have liked to move out, but that they couldn’t afford it. Italians in that situation now give me the same answer. And it’s true that salaries in both countries are generally lower than in the States, whereas rents are not. But obviously this isn’t a question of strict economic necessity.
The typical American fresh out of college is glad to spend half his salary for a room in a crammed group house furnished with a few sticks of Ikea. He’d sooner sit in a cage at Guantanamo prison than move back into the old bedroom, with its decor of toy-soldier wallpaper and high school trophies, and the ever-hovering presence of mom and dad.
Whereas his southern European contemporary will normally choose to save his money for Armani suits and Ferragamo shoes (or more affordable knock-offs), and put up with the inevitable surveillance of the older generation. Really, he doesn’t even notice it. There’s no word for “privacy” in Italian or Spanish. And Mama does all the cooking and laundry for you.
Americans sometimes make a fetish of independence. A few years back, the New Yorker magazine ran an entire article based on the fact that most of the suspects in an especially gruesome case of police brutality were grown men living with their mothers. But other countries recognize that not everyone who chooses to share a roof with parents is Norman Bates.
On balance, however, the American practice strikes me as healthier. Tradition and respect for family are beautiful things, often shamefully neglected in the States (though Europe is catching up). But as the case of the 29-year-old lawyer suggests, if the pleasures of modern consumerism are not joined to the demands of even moderately rugged individualism, the result is not merely decadent but ridiculous.