My parents floated the idea of having me move back to California right around the second week of March, when the number of coronavirus cases in the US started to surge. They assured me it was just a suggestion, in case things took a turn for the worst in New York City. (Spoiler: it has.) I immediately told them no; they’re in their late 50s, and I didn’t want to put our household at risk by flying home. I was also comfortable where I was having just moved into my own apartment in February — a privilege that most New Yorkers aren’t afforded.
As the pandemic spread across the country, I started to flip-flop on my earlier decision. I had heard of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances — mostly adults in their 20s and 30s — who were packing their bags and heading home indefinitely.
”My family was concerned that I was going to get stuck in New York, so I decided to book a flight home shortly after my parents called for me to come home,” Caroline Heffernan, 27, told me. Heffernan, a compensation consultant based in Manhattan, flew home to the Chicago area the week of March 16 and is self-isolating at home with her dad, as the two take precautions to see whether she develops symptoms after her flight. On March 25, the White House advised for travelers out of New York to self-isolate for the next 14 days to ensure the virus doesn’t spread to other locales.
While parents may want to ask their adult children to come home and those children may well want to comply, it’s not the time to hop on an airplane if you can avoid it — or be in any space that’s packed with people. Doing so naturally poses a risk, especially for those with older or immuno-compromised parents and family members, but it’s a choice some families have decisively taken in the face of city-wide shutdowns and potential restrictions on domestic travel.
Public health experts have been consistent in their message: Stay put where you are and travel only if you have to. They say it doesn’t matter if you’re young or healthy; to effectively “flatten the curve” of Covid-19’s spread, we all need to do our part in limiting social interaction. Young adults are susceptible to the virus as well. For people ages 20-44, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 14.3 percent were hospitalized and 2 percent ended up in the ICU. The CDC has also issued guidelines advising against all nonessential travel outside the US during the pandemic, but says it “does not generally issue advisories or restrictions for travel” within the country. It is possible, however, that the federal government or the airlines could mandate a complete shutdown of domestic flights with so few people flying, effectively forcing people to remain where they are.
In the midst of all this confusion and social precariousness, some people are leaving behind daily routines, apartments, and personal independence to be closer to their loved ones. Some who are able are heading home because they’re out of a job or rendered financially unstable as the economy nosedives. Others, who crave the emotional and physical stability of home, find comfort in hunkering down with family. Health experts say it’s possible that we have to keep socially distancing ourselves for months or even up to a year, which means schools, workplaces, and other social spaces might stay closed for much longer.
During this period of isolation, it’s inevitable that people will get lonely — even if we are more connected than ever through video conferencing apps, group chats, and social media. As Vox’s Ezra Klein writes, the pandemic might cause a social recession, or “a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness,” who are older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions. There’s also a desire to see older and frailer family members, especially for adults who live far away and rarely spend time with their loved ones.
Adults can’t visit their parents. Parents can’t visit their adult children. And if they could, they couldn’t even embrace each other. I don’t know how many, but some of us hugged our loved ones for the last time and we don’t know it yet.
— Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) March 20, 2020
Home, then, is not just a safe haven. It’s a place where there’s someone who can take care of you and vice versa, and a relative or parent is likely more reliable and responsible than any roommate.
”The most natural thing in the world is to want to bond and affiliate with our safe cohort during this time,” said Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood, of adults choosing to relocate home. “It’s the desire for familiarity. Right now, there’s so much uncertainty, and that’s the biggest stressor for most people.” It’s the “most natural thing in the world” to crave familial comfort, but Fielding added that there are logistical considerations people should consider, like older family members or their own health risks.
It’s a predicament that’s facing many young adults or people with older parents, wrote Jeremy Schneider in an op-ed for the news site NJ.com. “I must sacrifice the comfort of home in favor of eliminating one extra variable, one extra ‘what if’ that could impact my parents’ well-being.”
For Heffernan, she solidified her decision to leave New York before the surge in cases, when her two older sisters who work in health care insisted she return. After some consideration, Heffernan said she’d much rather be stuck in her parents’ house with just her dad “for who knows how long” than her Manhattan apartment, which she shares with a roommate. The space is much bigger for two people, and “Chicago appears to be a bit safer than New York,” she said.
”I would rather use this time to go home and be with my parents instead of being alone in DC, quarantined in my apartment,” Shumaisa Ahmed, a consultant in Washington, DC, said. “The timing kind of worked out, but I probably wouldn’t have gone home if my flight was a bit later, when things started to get crazy with businesses shutting down.” Ahmed had already planned to fly home to Texas in March before the pandemic and moved her flight up a few weeks earlier. She’s currently self-isolating in her room since she returned to Texas in mid-March, minimizing interaction with her parents.
Ahmed and Heffernan both left behind dense urban areas for the suburbs their parents reside in, which are more geographically sparse. During a pandemic, the density of a city like New York could pose a threat to public health — something Governor Andrew Cuomo even acknowledged.
“Dense social networks in communities save people,” Jacob Remes, a historian at New York University who studies urban disasters, told the New York Times. “That’s what makes communities resilient, and it’s what then helps communities recover.” But in the face of a highly infectious disease, some see the sprawling suburbs as a safer alternative.
While those fleeing home might have the comfort of family, it’s essentially “a social trade-off,” according to Fielding. Parents are going to expect their children to do some household tasks, like cook or do chores, and schedules might conflict. “Since most people are staying inside all the time, there will be stressful moments with mom or dad,” she said. The Cut’s Anna Silman described an adult’s homecoming to their parents’ place as “an option of last resort,” comparing it to a “shelf-stable can of beans you know you can always eat once the pantry runs dry.” (Silman advised people to resist the urge of returning home and instead stay put wherever they are.)
Yet even before Covid-19, young people have turned to their parents for temporary refuge during times of crisis. It’s common across cultures for adults to move home when they’re in need or distress, Fielding told me. The added likelihood of a global economic catastrophe — one that is forecasted to be worse than the 2008 Great Recession with an “unprecedented rise” in unemployment — only exacerbates society’s existing fears.
The Job Quality Index team, a project from Cornell University Law School and others, has estimated that more than 37 million jobs in the US are vulnerable to short-term layoffs, most of which will affect low-wage workers from the restaurant and food service industry, retail, education, entertainment, and travel. Recessions aren’t good for anyone, but adults between the ages of 22 and 38 are going to be hit especially hard by this next decline. As Annie Lowrey wrote in the Atlantic last August, “the last recession never really ended” for this age group.
Millennials and the oldest members of Generation Z are being bodied by back-to-back recessions over the course of two decades. Millennials were already struggling to recover after 2008, according to Lowrey: “As they pitch toward middle age, they are failing to make it to the middle class, and are likely to be the first generation in modern economic history to end up worse off than their parents. The next downturn might make sure of it, stalling their careers and sucking away their wages right as the millennials enter their prime earning years.”
Shane Rostad, a freelance web designer in his 20s, posted a thread on Twitter outlining his plan for the next year, given the economic downturn. “If you’re young, the next 12 months might be a good time to move back in with your family if you can,” he wrote. “I say this knowing there’s nothing cool about moving back in with your family, but it’s what I’m doing.”
3. cont) I say this knowing there’s nothing cool about moving back in with your family, but it’s what I’m doing. I have an apartment in Spain that I’m paying for (obv can’t use) but that ends in June.
— shane rostad (@shanerostad) March 16, 2020
However, the reality is that many young adults don’t rely on their family as a social or economic safety net. Plenty of young adults financially provide for their parents, while others can’t move back home for a host of reasons, whether due to money, strained relationships, abuse, immigration status, or myriad other factors. And moving home doesn’t necessarily guarantee stability; it could reduce the burden on the individual, but in some cases, it can also create more stress in the family.
Over the next few weeks, projections show that more and more people are going to be out of a job, as more social distancing measures are put in place. This economic instability might push young adults to want to move back in with their parents even faster than the pandemic itself. For people like Heffernan and Ahmed, moving home for the near future helped bring back a sense of balance in their lives and resolved their anxieties about being far from their families. They do, however, have the ability to work remotely and return to their independent lives once Covid-19 is contained. Others don’t have the freedom to leave work, especially if they’re an essential employee or at risk of being laid off.
The coronavirus has upended how we live our lives, and in this moment of great uncertainty, a crucial source of comfort for most people is family. Yet, we’re advised by public health officials and lawmakers to stay put. There’s no clear end date to the pandemic that seems to be worsening every day in the US, and most of us don’t know when it’ll be safe to see our loved ones again. That’s a scary fact, but as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb, resisting the urge to return home could ultimately be the safest course of action for everyone.
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