In creaky melodramas of the old school, there came a moment when the plucky heroine would announce her intention to go ahead with some ill-advised courtship, and her father would threaten to cut her off without a cent.
Easier said than done. In Italy, a court has ordered, upon pain of having his assets seized, Giancarlo Casagrande of Bergamo to pay his daughter an allowance of 350 euros—approximately $525—every month. Signor Casagrande is 60. His daughter Marina is 32. She was supposed to have graduated with a degree in philosophy eight years ago but, though her classes ended way back at the beginning of the century, she’s still working on her thesis. So Signor Casagrande is obliged to pay up, either in perpetuity or until the completion of Marina’s thesis, whichever comes sooner. Her thesis is about the Holy Grail. Which it’s hard to see why Marina would have any use for, given that she’s already found a source of miraculous life-transforming powers in Papa’s chequebook.
Marina is what they call in Italy a “bambocciona,” which translates, roughly, as “big baby”—the term for the ever-growing number of young adults still living at home. Not their home—with a spouse and young kids and putting out the garbage and repainting the stairs and so forth—but at their parents’ home, in the same bedroom they’ve slept in since they were in diapers.
There was, as usual, a momentary spasm of ineffectual outrage over the judge’s decision against Signor Casagrande, whose very name is mocked by this demographic trend: the casa would seem much grande if only Junior would move out. But in Italy they rarely do. Renato Brunetta, the Minister of Public Administration and Innovation, announced his support for a law requiring children to skedaddle out of their parents’ pad when they turned 18. That would certainly be an Innovation but might well put strains on Public Administration: right now, seven out of 10 adults aged 18-39 live with their folks. Indeed, Signor Brunetta blushed to admit that he himself had lived at home until he was 30. “My mother made my bed up until I left and I am ashamed of that,” he confessed. Italy increasingly resembles the old Benny Hill sketch in which he and his dolly bird are bikers who can’t find affordable housing.
“Why don’t you move back in with your parents?” suggests the BBC interviewer.
“We would do,” says Benny, “but they’ve moved back in with theirs.”
Indeed. Sixtysomething Italians ordered to pay “child support” to thirtysomething kids should move back in with their nonagenarian parents and sue for a monthly allowance backdated to the early ’70s.
Italy’s bamboccioni have their equivalents around the developed world. In Japan, they’re called parasaito shinguru—or “parasite singles,” after the horror film Parasite Eve, in which alien spawn grow in human bellies feeding off the host until they’re ready to burst through. In Germany, they’re Nesthockers with no plans to move out of “Hotel Mama.” In Britain, they’re KIPPERS (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings). In Canada, we have the phenomenon but without any disparaging term: by 2006, 43.5 per cent of adults aged 20-29 lived with their parents. Between 1981 and 2006, the percentage of men in their late twenties living at home doubled, and the percentage of women near tripled. By 2006, 31 per cent of Canadian men aged 25-29 were still sleeping in their childhood bedroom each night.
In 2007, Diana West wrote a book called The Death of the Grown-Up. Complacent types might assume she was speaking metaphorically. But in much of the Western world the condition is very literal—and increasingly, as we see in Italy, de jure. It’s not so much that “The Grown-Up” has died but that he’s born later and later, if at all. A couple of years back, I attended a conference in Queensland in which an Australian demographer explained the differences between life then and life now. In the old days, there were, broadly, two phases of life: you were a child until, say, 13. Then you were a working adult. Then you died. Now there are four phases: you’re a child until, say, 12, 11, 9—or whenever enlightened jurisdictions think you’re entitled to go on the pill without parental notification. Then you’re an “adolescent,” a term of art now stretching well into middle age and of which a 32-year-old taking eight years to complete a thesis on the Holy Grail would appear to be a near parodic example. Then you work, after a fashion. Then you quit at 65, 60, 55, 52, whatever you can get away with, and enjoy a three-decade retirement at public expense. Functioning adulthood is that ever-shrinking space between adolescence and retirement.
No society can make this math add up. The economics of demographics used to be relatively simple: in a traditional agricultural society, by the time you got too worn and stooped for clearing and plowing, you hoped to have enough able-bodied 13-year-olds to do it for you. Today, most developed nations have managed to defer adulthood and thus to disincentive parenthood—quite dramatically so, if the judgment against Signor Casagrande holds. It’s no coincidence that the countries most prone to bamboccioni and parasite singles are the world’s oldest and fastest aging, with the lowest fertility rate: Japan, Germany and Italy are already in net population decline. Remember the ’80s? Japan was buying up every American icon from Rockefeller Center to Columbia Pictures and TV viewers were bombarded with commercials warning that they’d soon be speaking Japanese down at the shopping mall. So what happened? Well, the yellow peril got wrinkly—and thus a lot less perilous. Over half of Japanese women are still unmarried by the time they’re 30. Japanese maternity wards are going out of business. Japanese toy makers such as Tomy, recognizing that children’s toys is a deadsville market in a land without children, are diversifying into talking dolls with 1,200 preprogrammed phrases that can serve as companions for the elderly: they’re the grandchildren you’ll never have.
In Italy, the problem of the bamboccioni is often attributed to a lack of “affordable housing,” which certainly has something to do with the postponement of adulthood. Acre for acre, America is the cheapest developed country in which to buy a four-bedroom home on a nice-sized lot with plenty of space for plenty of kids. If you’re wondering why Canada’s fertility rate qualifies it for honorary membership of the European Union and why 75 per cent of the Dominion’s population growth comes from immigrants, look at how we live: yes, in part because of climate but largely because of Trudeaupian social engineering and immigration trends, Canada’s population is more concentrated than America’s. As Americans have decamped to suburbs, exurbs and beyond, Canada has become more urbanized. If you were seriously interested in tackling the country’s structural deformations, you’d want to provide some way of encouraging still fecund young couples to move from their cramped accommodations in Toronto and Vancouver to the dying hinterland.
But it’s hard to look at the Western world’s young middle-aged and think it’s purely a phenomenon of the property market. Marina Casagrande is an especially sublime embodiment of Western demography. Free citizens of advanced democracies are increasingly the world’s wrinkliest teenagers—a development Hilaire Belloc predicted quite explicitly in his book The Servile State way back in 1912, before teenagers had even been invented. If you’re a 30-year-old Japanese gal or 38-year-old Italian guy, why move out of the house? You’ve got all the benefits of adulthood (shagging, boozing, your own TV) with none of the responsibilities (cooking, laundry, property tax bills). We’ve created a world in which a 37-year-old Italian male can stroll into a singles bar, tell the chicks he lives at his mum and dad’s place in the same bedroom he’s slept in since he was in grade school—and he can still walk out with a hot-looking babe. This guy would have been a laughingstock at any other point in human history.
And every progressive politician says we need more of it. Barack Obama wants everybody to go to college. Why?
Well, why not? Most would-be employers already regard a U.S. high-school diploma as utterly worthless, so why not do the same to a bachelor’s degree?
It isn’t very difficult. In most Western countries, there aren’t enough working people engaged in genuine wealth creation to pay for a society organized on the human right to endlessly deferred adulthood—and, as Signor Casagrande discovered, eventually someone has to. But, more to the point, a society in which it becomes the norm for 40-year-olds to climb the stairs every night to their childhood bedroom, the same one that once had the teddy-bear wallpaper and the Thomas the Tank Engine coverlet, will not merely be a land that fails to produce the innovators necessary to create such wealth, it will be a world that does not make men, or women, in any meaningful sense of those terms. There used to be an English expression, “kippers and curtains.” In Europe today, it’s KIPPERS—and curtains.