Sunday, March 12, 2006

Failure to Launch -- or Failure to Respect the Facts?

From Ash:

While I have to send a hearty congratulations to Viacom, Paramount, and Simon & Schuster for the release of the new Paramount film, Failure to Launch (which AP just announced had rocketed to the top of the box office chart in its opening weekend), I have to shake my head in both awe and disappointment about one aspect of the film's release.

One of Viacom's strategies in promoting the film was in announcing that it was representative of a growing social trend of U.S. adults, aged 18-40+ who either never leave the family home -- or are "boomerangs" -- they move back to live with their parents after being out on their own for a while. To that end, on February 28, 2006, Viacom generously sent out a joint-entity press release for the film and Boomerang Nation, a year-old book published by one of its own subsidiaries, contact information for Elina Furman, the book's author (who, they helpfully noted, was available for interviews), and a single U.S. Census statistic supporting their argument.

By my count to date, at least seven major metropolitan newspapers took the bait. In addition to reviews and/or other articles directly relating to the film, in the past two weeks since Viacom sent out that press release, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Herald, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Indianapolis Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hartford Courant and Philadelphia Daily News all have run articles about adults not leaving the family home and/or "boomerangs." Ms. Furman has also recently appeared on The Today Show and Geraldo. (Oh, and articles about boomerangs are also appearing across Canada and the U.K. as well.)

Of these, every piece mentions the film, and five did interview Ms. Furman or mentioned her book. (The most shocking of which being The Today Show and Boston Herald, both of whom had Ms. Furman comment on the accuracy of the film as if she's an independent expert -- who, not surprisingly says that the film is accurate -- and utterly fail to acknowledge that Viacom is literally sending her out as a flack for the film. But then, none of the other articles mentioning her explain it's a cross-promotion, either.)

If there's any doubt that the editors looked no further than the press release when assigning the article -- just over half of them mentioned that there's also a similarly themed Fox television show premiering this week.

All of which amounts to what I'd consider a spectacular home run for Viacom . . . and a spectacular failure for journalism.

Not only did the news outlets take the bait -- and double-up on the time they devoted to the Failure to Launch topic, not only did they highlight a year old book -- but they also reported on a trend which, after a year of researching, I can honestly say I do not think exists.

In case you missed that -- the boomerang trend doesn't exist.

Now you may be thinking, "But, wait a minute. I've been seeing reports about this new trend for a couple years already -- so how can you say that it doesn't exist?"

You are absolutely correct: you have indeed seen a spate of articles covering this. From books to talk shows -- even a cover story in Time Magazine. But you're trapped in a media echo chamber.

There is an fascinating transformation in how we as Americans become "adults" -- and that is taking longer. And I'll go into just how and what is going on in my next post.

But boomeranging? It's:

a) not new, and

b) not a trend.

In fact, the very idea of it being a new trend is false. I've found articles worrying about adults moving back home for more than two decades. Even the term "boomeranger" has been around for about 20 years -- an entire lifetime for one of the so-called "new boomerangers." Put that another way -- reporters have been writing about these darned boomerang kids since before these darned boomerang kids were born.

In the San Francisco Chronicle piece, C.W. Nevius -- who is usually a great reporter but who missed this one -- does include what is an absolutely priceless quote from Claude Fischer, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, that should be plastered up on the wall of every newsroom in the U.S.:

"A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editors' friends.''

I couldn't agree more, Professor! Unfortunately, the sociologist's warning didn't stop Nevius.

First, as "proof" of the Boomerang phenomenon, the main fact relied upon by Nevius -- and several of the reporters -- are the Census numbers for men and women still living with their parents at the age of 18-24.

In 2003, Nevius and the others solemnly report, 55 percent of 18-24 year old males and 46 percent of females were living with their parents.

And I'll be the first one to admit that does look really high.

But it doesn't support the claim that there's a new boomerang trend.

Because the percentages for 18-24 year old men living at home in 2003 are not higher than in recent times. They're lower.

In fact, the highest percentages of men living at home were more than 20 years ago – in 1984! – when 62 percent of them lived at home. And 54 percent of men that age lived with their parents in 1970 and 1980.

So in the last 30 years, the percentage of young males living with their parents has risen a whopping 1 percent!

And there were actually a few less men in the next age bracket (25-34) living at home in 2003 than there were in 1983.

If that's a significant, upward trend, it's the strangest one I know of. And hardly what I'd call newsworthy.

Now there's a more significant increase for 18-24 year old women "living at home" -- but that's not surprising. Women traditionally have left home younger than the men, because they get married younger. But now, more women are putting off marriage and going to college.

And did I mention? 2003 wasn't the highest year for 18-24 year old women living at home, either: 1999 was the highest year. That's more recent, but still, long enough ago that none of the women who were in that age group then, are still in it today.

I'm actually surprised the increase hasn't been much greater. Because the Census counts people who live in college housing as still living at home. In 2000, of the 13.2 million who were 18-24 and scandalously were "still living at home" -- over 2 million of them (14 percent) were actually living in their college dorms.

So we should expect the numbers of adult children at home to be significantly higher than it was in earlier decades (and continue to grow), because more people are going to college – and living in dorms or staying home while they do it. (A fact entirely overlooked by all the articles. And which is hardly what I'd call a "failure to launch.")

But instead, the growth doesn't seem as exponential as the growth in college attendance has been -- which indicates that it is the economy which is really the chief force that drives you home.

Similarly, Nevius writes, "Among those age 25 to 30, the figures were 13.5 percent and 7 percent, respectively." Once again, the highest percentages for both sexes were actually ten years ago -- 1996, when 16 percent of men 25-34 and 9.0 percent of women 25-34 were living at home. And it's generally been going down since then – though there was with a bump up from 2001-2002 with the change in the Post-September 11 economy and environment.

If I am going to call this many publications onto the carpet, I better be very clear, so that there's no mistake. To recap: what really looks like it is happening is that staying with the folks or moving home is cyclical -- when the economy gets tight, jobs are scarce and housing costs are enormous, people move back home. There was a noticable increase in the percentage of young(ish) adults living at home. Definitely. And it lasted for quite a few years.

But the percentages have leveled off in the past couple years and returned to those almost identical to those decades ago. It's not a new straight steep line on a chart. It's a good old-fashioned bell-curve -- and a pretty low curve at that.

And we're not even on the high point of the curve. We're just in a high point of media interest about it.

Of course, a headline like "People leave home as they find jobs and the economy improves" isn't exactly breaking news.

And all of which I guess explains why Failure to Launch is #1 at the box office, and why I'm not working in the Viacom PR department, why Ms. Furman is on Today and I'm not.

Tomorrow -- the real changes in young adult lives.


Blogger bernie said...

Excellent arguments, just FYI I linked to your article from When should children leave home?

12:37 PM  

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