Remember all those wistful articles by empty nesters on how to transition from chaos to the quiet resulting from children leaving home to establish permanent lives elsewhere? Well, no more.
According to a new study by researchers at Oregon State University, the empty nest, what was once a life stage of new freedoms afforded by the absence of children, has become a thing of the past. An economic recession and tough job market have made it increasingly hard for young adults to move on and launch their own careers and families. At the same time, many older people are living longer, meaning midlifers are having to care for aging parents in their own homes as well.
The result? A postponing of "empty nest" plans including trips and paying off mortgages. This can cause a myriad of emotions -- everything from happiness to frustration -- according to researchers.
"We mostly found very positive feelings about adults helping their children in the emerging adulthood stage of life, from around ages 18 to 30," said Karen Hooker, director of the OSU Center for Healthy Aging Research, in a press release on the study. "Feelings about helping parents weren't so much negative as just filled with more angst and uncertainty."
Hooker added that "as a society we still don't socialize people to expect to be taking on a parent-caring role, even though most of us will at some point in our lives. The average middle-aged couple has more parents than children."
The findings of this research were just published in the Journal of Aging Studies and were based on data collected from six focus groups during 2009 and 2010. The study was one of the first of its type to look at how middle-aged adults actually feel about the changing trends.
Various social, economic and cultural forces have teamed up to dramatically challenge the traditional notion of an empty nest, the scientists said. The recession that began in 2008 sparked record unemployment, large stock market losses, lower home values and increased demand for higher levels of education.
Around the same time, advances in health care and life expectancy have made it possible for many adults to live far longer than they used to -- although not always in good health, meaning there's often a need for ongoing care.
The study concluded that most middle-aged parents with young adult children are, in large part, happy to help out, and they understand the challenges they face. Some research has suggested that age 25 is the new 22; that a large number of parents don't even expect their kids to be financially independent in their early 20s.
But it's a different story when it comes to caring for aging parents. The study found that participants found this to be both a joy and a burden, and that it was a turn of events not always anticipated by midlifers.
Because of their continued responsibilities, many middle-aged people said it was hard to make any plans for the future because of uncertainties related to their parents' health. Although they were willing to provide care, many complained of being starved for time.
The dual demands of children still forging their way to independence, and aging parents in need of increasing amounts of care, are causing many of the study participants to re-examine their own lives. Some say they are determined to make detailed plans for their own futures so that they don't wind up being a burden to their children.
"I don't care if I get old," a participant said. "I just don't want to become debilitated. So I would rather have a shorter life and a healthy life than a long life like my mom, where she doesn't have a life. She doesn't have memories. Our memories are what make us who we are."