Peterson, Corbyn and the rise of the kidult
Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images   

The story of Michael Rotondo, the 30-year-old New Yorker whose parents took out an eviction order in an effort to get him to move out of their house, has captured the world’s imagination. While it might be unlucky for Mr Rotondo that – thanks to global media – he has become the international poster-son for millennial filial dysfunction, sympathy with his parents tends to increase the more one reads of the case.

Mr Rotondo – who is a father himself, of a young boy to whom he has disputed access – has been living at home with his parents Christina and Mark since the age of 22. Last year they finally decided that they would like him to move out, a view that they expressed clearly in five notices before taking things to court.

Their letters reveal an agonised struggle to combine continuing parental assistance with frustration at his long-term inaction. The letter in February, in which they also gave him $1,100 to help with finding a new place to live, reeks of desperation. Under the heading “Some advice” they told him: “Sell the other things you have that have any significant value…this is particularly true of any weapons that you might have”, and “There are jobs available even for those with a poor work history like you. Get one – you have to work!” Behind the headlines, the details of the case – hinting at deeper personal issues in their son – are serious, painful and sad.

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This is, of course, an extreme case – but variations on such disputes are more frequent in Italy, for example, where grown-up children are often reluctant to leave home. Italians blame this in part on a phenomenon dubbed “mammismo”: a somewhat stifling, infantilising bond of affection between sons and mothers, continuing into the adult years. In 2011 a Venetian couple took similar court action – any allure of mammismo, presumably, having long ago expired – arguing that their 41-year-old son had a job but refused to get his own place, still expecting his meals to be served and clothes washed and ironed by his increasingly elderly parents. There was even, in some reports, a suggestion that the son had become aggressive at requests to leave.

Connected to this culture of “mammismo” is the emergence of “bamboccioni”: the somewhat derogatory Italian term meaning “big babies,” applied to grown-up children who are still living with their parents (65% of young adults aged 18-34, a higher proportion than in any other European country.) The factors behind this go beyond the cultural to the economic and political: one key factor in keeping young Italians at home, increasingly familiar in the UK, is the prohibitively high cost of renting. It is combined in Italy with high youth unemployment (currently around 35 per cent). A strikingly high number of well-educated young Italians are now leaving Italy to go and work elsewhere – finding, perhaps, that it is easier to leave Italy than to live in Italy and leave home.

In the UK, too, the number of young adults still living at home with their parents is now at an all-time high – one in four 20 to 34 years olds in 2017, and the proportion is higher still among young men at one in three.

“Generation X” tended to leave home earlier but delayed starting families out of choice or indecision. Now, among numerous millennials, the luxury of choice has evaporated

Multiple social and economic factors have contributed to this situation – the accumulation of student debt, the rise of unpaid work internships, high rental costs and unaffordable house prices have all made it more difficult for the average person in their 20s to strike out on their own or scrape together a mortgage deposit. At the same time, the relaxation of social and sexual mores has made the parental home a freer and more congenial place for a young unmarried adult – for those who came of age before the 1960s, for example, sex before marriage was taboo even as a subject for discussion, let alone the notion that a son or daughter might enact it under his or her parents’ roof with their knowledge. Today, a vlogger such as Miri Gellert – a charming 30-year-old singing teacher living in London – can record without embarrassment an item for the BBC website called “sex and dating when you’re living with your parents.”

News stories about people such as Michael Rotondo or the Venetian son who refused to move out are, of course, at the extreme end of the living-with-parents phenomenon: the vast majority of experiences are far more positive. Yet such tales fascinate and appal onlookers because they speak to the deepest secret fears of both parents and children: on the parents’ side, that an adult child will be atrophied by care, unable to launch themselves into the world; on the child’s side, that they will grow so inert that parents will eventually reject them.

The worrying thing about these cases is not, in fact, that a grown man is living with his parents. There are reasons, at various stages in life, why that may be a good choice for different generations in a family, in particular when practical help is required in saving a deposit, raising young children or providing care for the elderly or infirm. There are many cultures where three or even four generations live well together under one roof. I grew up in Northern Ireland in a house with my parents and also my grandparents: with its multiplicity of interested adults, it was an ideal setting for a young child.

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The real problem comes if the adult child has somehow failed to mature emotionally and shoulder necessary responsibilities: to pay the bills, do the chores, curb selfish tendencies and become more supportive of others.  “Generation X” tended to leave home earlier but delayed starting families out of choice or indecision. Now, among numerous millennials, the luxury of choice has evaporated. The enforced prolongation of the drawbacks – and even perks – of childhood has created a deep anxiety. The bulk of millennials have no desire whatsoever to remain dependent upon their parents, although this is the situation in which they may find themselves: this tension is creating new cultural and political phenomena.

One of these has been the disproportionate rise in support among the young for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The prospect of radical change, such as Corbyn seems to offer, appears most attractive when the alternative promises no change at all. On questions such as affordable housing and student debt, many young people now feel that answers are more likely to flow from Corbyn than Prime Minister Theresa May, particularly as her time in office lengthens, while their situation stagnates. Concerns that could flow from Corbyn as Prime Minister – the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, his past closeness to members of terrorist organisations, and precisely what he and the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell might do to the wider economy – seem a lesser worry for many of them.

Another symptom is cultural: the popularity in the UK of the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, particularly among young men, has taken many in the media and publishing worlds by surprise. Yet much of his lecturing and his book, 12 Rules For Life, is preoccupied with encouraging young people to assume personal responsibilities – in families and workplaces – as well as accepting a measure of risk in their decision-making. One imagines he would have a field day on the young Mr Rotondo.

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The tone of Peterson’s book is alternately sternly and warmly didactic, and younger followers of his writings and lectures, rather than resenting such an approach as some might have expected, seem to like it a great deal. If one takes away the literary, biblical, philosophical and lobster references, what remains is a stubborn core of old-school life advice of the kind that parents have traditionally dispensed through the ages: stand up straight, don’t be frightened or whiny, don’t blame other people for everything, be true to your word, and be prepared for life to be difficult. Perhaps parents themselves are increasingly reluctant now to pass on this type of world view, or maybe father figures are simply not present in the daily lives of many of Peterson’s devotees. In either case, it has become clear that the Toronto professor is meeting a psychological need which may have been widely underestimated, particularly among young men.

Although they may appear to come at life from completely different perspectives, the young Corbyn supporters and the Peterson devotees have one similar instinct: to forge an identity and existence that is decisively separate from that of their parents. They are as terrified of becoming the kind of child who is taken to court by their frustrated parents as their parents are of having such a child: no-one really wants to be a Michael Rotondo (including, I suspect, Rotondo himself). Where the two groups differ is in their approach: the Corbynites wish to do it by radically restructuring the economy in a way that they believe will make it fairer and easier for them to progress, and the fans of Peterson by following a behavioural blueprint for how to build personal resilience and find moral meaning in the world.

The young Corbyn supporters and the Peterson devotees have one similar instinct: to forge an identity and existence that is decisively separate from that of their parents

One group wants to begin by fixing faults in society, the other by mending faults in themselves. In that sense, both aspirations hold a degree of integrity, although when the debate manifests itself on social media, it can easily degenerate into angry, pious displays of identity politics or supercharged rants against perceived political correctness.

Yet there should be no doubting the fundamental force and sincerity of the desire to grow up: the UK’s kidults are often desperate to find an emotional and practical path out of childhood, but are presently finding many traditional routes to behaving like a grown-up – steady, paid work, affordable housing, the ability to support a family – largely blocked. They feel that society is not on their side, but holding them hostage in their parents’ house. If their discontent can find no reasonable, practical resolution, it will be a source of increasing political volatility. One of the sharpest lessons of recent history has been that those who are too long ignored by government eventually find a way to render themselves unignorable. Theresa May’s government must take steps to help millennials navigate a steady route to independence, or prepare one day to get trampled.

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