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Jewish World Review August 3, 1999 /21 Av, 5759

Thomas Sowell

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Boomers and boomerangs -- TIME WAS WHEN GRANDPARENTS often moved in with their children and grandchildren, especially when the grandparent was a widow or widower, or just had trouble making ends meet financially. Today, it is the children and grandchildren who move in with the grandparents.

A recent Census Bureau report shows that there are three times as many households where the children and grandchildren are living in the grandparents' home as there are where the grandparents are living with their children and grandchildren. Moreover, this trend is growing.

Back in 1970, there were a little more than 2 million children under 18 who were living in their grandparents' households. By 1997, that had reached nearly 4 million. Six percent of all children under 18 live in their grandparents' households.

There was a time when any adult who had gone out into the world would be embarrassed to come back and live with his parents, much less bring his or her family too. Today, this is such a common occurrence among the baby boomers that there is a word for grown children who leave home and then come back -- "boomerangs."

Perhaps the worst situation of all is when both parents have skipped out and dumped their children on grandma and grandpa. This happens about one- third of the time when grandchildren are living in their grandparents' home.

These grandparents are not rich people living on investments and annuities. Most of the grandparents are working, even if their children aren't. Moreover, they suffer more depression and other health problems than grandparents without such burdens.

Bad as this is, what is worse is to contemplate what is going to happen when the last of the responsible generation -- those who feel a responsibility to look out for both their aging parents and their adult children -- pass from the scene, leaving behind only the "me" generation.

This is only one of many social time bombs ticking away, while we enjoy a prospering economy. We may hope that the "me" generation will grow up when they run out of other people to dump their responsibilities on. But don't bet the rent money on it.

People don't usually grow up when there are other people who make excuses for their immaturity. In a "non-judgmental" world, who is to tell irresponsible parents to grow up?

Even when the parents are present and have their children in their own homes, they seem increasingly to be letting these children pretty much raise themselves. When a woman was complaining recently about some bratty and even dangerous behavior she sees in children, I asked, "Where are their parents?" She replied: "There are no parents today." I had to admit that she had a point.

One of the biggest excuses for lax parenting is that both parents "have to" work, in order to "make ends meet." Yet, within living memory, it was common in working-class families -- black and white -- for the husband to work and the wife to stay home to raise the children. Why didn't both parents have to work then, in order to make ends meet?

Were people so much richer then? On the contrary, they were much poorer. Today's families living in poverty have things that average Americans could not afford then.

People today eat in restaurants more times in a month than they used to in a year -- or, in some cases, a decade. As a young man, I was uneasy when I began eating in restaurants, because I had so seldom eaten in one while growing up. As for having a car, the thought never crossed my mind.

If people in those days had lived the way we live today, of course it would have taken both parents to make ends meet. They would probably have had to put the children to work too.

People make choices and have their own priorities -- and adults take responsibilities for their choices and priorities. It is a cop-out to say that they are "forced" to have two-income families just "to make ends meet."

When we have a system where children are fed in schools and other basic responsibilities are also lifted from the shoulders of their parents, why should we be surprised that the sense of parental responsibility seems to be eroding? We are not surprised when a couch potato doesn't have the kind of muscles found on someone who exercises. Our society is increasingly turning out moral couch potatoes.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate