June 21, 2021

A Generation of Homecomers: Alfred Schutz and the Experiences of “Boomerang Children”

Davison-Vecchione author photoBy Daniel Davison-Vecchione, PhD candidate in Sociology, University of Cambridge

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many people in their twenties and thirties in high-income OECD countries to move back in with their families because of job losses and financial costs. A September 2020 Pew Research Center report found that most people aged 18 to 29 in the US now live with their parents – the first time this had been the case since the Great Depression. Similarly, a 2019 Office for National Statistics report in the UK found a 46% increase over the last two decades in the number of people aged 20-34 living with parents.

Millennials and older members of Generation Z have been hit by two global recessions in the space of two decades, and are especially vulnerable to short-term layoffs because they are disproportionately in precarious, low-income employment. They find themselves jumping from one rental to the next, only to end up back in the family home, hoping to save up money and move out again. Despite returning to what they expect to be familiar ground, such “boomerang children” often feel curiously alienated or out of place in their hometowns.

To understand these experiences, it is worth revisiting the writings of the Austrian philosopher and sociologist Alfred Schutz (1899–1959). As a phenomenologist, Schutz was concerned with the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person perspective. Central to his thought was the concept of the lifeworld: that is, the organized world that subjects experience together and take as self-evident.

As Schutz puts it in “On Multiple Realities” (1945), all interpretation of our lifeworld is based on “a stock of previous experiences of it, our own experiences and those handed down to us by our parents and teachers, which in the form of ‘knowledge at hand’ functions as a scheme of reference.”

Accordingly, Schutz often wrote about social situations that unsettle one’s taken-for-granted experience and interpretation of the world. One such piece by Schutz is The Homecomer (1945). Here Schutz considers the challenging process of adjustment and adaptation one undergoes when returning to one’s home community after spending time away. As Schutz puts it:

The homecomer...expects to return to an environment of which he always had and – so he thinks – still has intimate knowledge and which he has just to take for granted in order to find his bearings within it. The approaching stranger has to anticipate in a more or less empty way what he will find; the homecomer has just to recur to his memories in the past (p. 369).

Instead, the homecomer experiences shock because, due to having grown used to different circumstances, different things have become important to both the homecomer and the welcomer. Both have re-evaluated their old experiences and gained novel ones. The returnee finds that people back home have only stereotyped views of what the former has experienced abroad in a unique and personal way, creating an unexpected incongruity. In Schutz’s poignant words, even if the homecomer finds no substantial change in the home group’s life or in its relations to them:

The home to which he (sic) returns is by no means the home he left or the home which he recalled and longed for during his absence. And, for the same reason, the homecomer is not the same man who left. He is neither the same for himself nor for those who await his return (p. 375).

Schutz wrote The Homecomer in the immediate context of soldiers returning from deployment overseas at the end of World War II. He also drew on his personal experience of coming back from the Italian Front after World War I. As such, Schutz writes about homecomers who, for the most part, intend to return permanently. In contrast, young adults today, whose familiar struggles as part of “Generation Rent” have been exacerbated by the pandemic, are homecomers in a more provisional sense. They come home for what they hope will only be a matter of months, with the aim of moving out again when they are able to do so.

Nevertheless, Schutz’s writings on the homecomer resonate strongly. However temporary their stay, young people returning to their home communities still tend to feel estranged, even when they do not experience exclusion, simply because they have trouble getting used to the social conventions or the organization of everyday life “back home.”

Despite the challenges it presents, one should not regard the homecomer’s “reverse culture shock” as a bad thing. It can help the returnees become more critical and self-reflective individuals because their newfound distance from what used to be their world of everyday life allows them to question that which they previously took for granted. In other words, the experiences of our current “generation of homecomers” might prove a valuable catalyst for personal and ultimately social change.

And if the common experiences of young people driven “back home” by the pandemic suggest that Schutz’s observations still have merit, what other present-day situations might his phenomenological approach help us understand?

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