The trend known as boomeranging, when young adults move back to their childhood home, often after being unable to kick-start life elsewhere, was identified by The Economist newspaper as first emerging in Britain in 1997. Following the Great Recession, America too has started to see an upswing of empty-nesters suddenly finding their nests full again. As 2012 draws to a close, this trend is fast morphing into an everyday fact of life.
Today, the "Boomerang Generation" is a hotly discussed topic in countries such as England and the U.S., where families are not culturally accustomed to multigenerational living post-adulthood. But is it something of which boomerangers and the nation as a whole should be ashamed or can it have a positive effect on the communities these young people return to?
"Is it a poor reflection on our economy or is this something we can embrace the way other countries do?" asked Janet Varney on the Huffington Post news site in August. The article, Boomerang Kids: Bad for the Economy or Good for Families?, went on to identify that in places such as India, France and the Caribbean, it is common to find entire families living together, including grown children and their families.
But, as with many things, Sun Valley is doing it a little differently. Long before the Great Recession, or the turn-of-the-century dot-com bust, this little Idaho mountain town has been drawing its once rugrat residents back to its unique blend of small-town resort living. Today it is witnessing a surge in the return of its offspring, but for the most part they live on their own, support themselves financially and are here by choice, not because they were tossed back by a bleak economy.
Those who live in or visit Sun Valley can easily answer the question of what draws these boomerangers back into the fold, and their return brings much-needed vitality to an increasingly aging population. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, there are almost two and half times as many adults 35 or older living in Blaine County as adults ages 20 to 34. The average age here is 40.4, compared to 37.2 nationally and 34.6 in the rest of Idaho. But what challenges do these young adults face by choosing to pursue life, loves and careers in isolated Idaho rather than basking in the bright lights and big cities of their contemporaries? And how does their return affect the community?
"This is the only place I want to call home," said Tara Jensen, 25, whose family moved to the valley when she was 2. "My memories are here. I love this place, and I want it to be the best it can be. I want to help this place thrive." Jensen returned to the valley in 2011 after attending a farm-to-table culinary school program in Boulder, Colorado. "I have left and returned numerous times, but never for too long," she said.
Jensen is now putting the knowledge and skills she picked up in Colorado (which included planting, slaughtering and butchering in addition to cooking) to the ultimate test: opening a restaurant in Ketchum. She and her partner are expanding the catering business they opened this summer into a cafe; the Local Dish will open in December. "I'm putting my heart and soul and blood and tears into it," she said.
By choosing to open her own business, Jensen doesn't feel living in Sun Valley has placed any professional limitations on her. However, social limitations are a whole other ballgame. "It can be challenging to meet people here," she said. "I've been focusing on myself lately, but you never know who you're going to meet along the way. You've got to make sacrifices to do what you want and live where you want to live."
Aaron Pearson, whose family moved to the valley when he was a year old, agrees with Jensen that owning a business in the valley is one of the only ways to bust through an otherwise professional glass ceiling, and that dating here is pretty tough. However, the valley has also provided him opportunities he might not have enjoyed as a smaller fish in a bigger pond. "I love being here right now," he said. "However, for all the fantastic opportunities the area affords, there is an equally long list of drawbacks. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only single 34-year-old in the valley. It's a very small town with very few dating opportunities."
Four years ago, Pearson decided he was tired of the corporate trajectory he was on in San Diego, and returned home for a job as information systems director of the Community Library. A nasty incident in Spain's Balearic Islands also spurred his homecoming. "Getting robbed in Europe was something of an epiphany," he said. "I realized I really just wanted to finally come back to Idaho to be closer to family, to have access to nature in the unique way available here, to snowboard, to refocus on making art and to clear my head."
But he is adamant that had a good job opportunity not presented itself, he would not have moved back. "I'm not a three-jobs-just-to-make-ends-meet type and I never have been," he said.
Pearson, who majored in studio art at Dartmouth College, said Sun Valley has been a great place to launch his art career. His solo show, Truth Itself Is Made, is at Ochi Gallery in Ketchum through mid-December. The gallery also showed his work and that of a handful of other young local artists last summer in the creatively titled Death To Day Jobs exhibition. Showcasing the talent of young locals with day jobs, the show helped to highlight and foster the young creative community in Ketchum, which hasn't always been highly visible. "Sun Valley has offered me more opportunities as an artist than I've found in the big cities," Pearson said. However, for most professional careers, he feels Sun Valley can be limiting. "I don't know if I'd call the ceiling here glass," he said. "It's more like concrete, unless you want to start your own business, but then you're really putting your life on the line, potentially."
The point will come for Pearson when he will have to make a choice between buying a house in the valley or leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere. "If I can get things to line up, I would like to raise a family here," he said. "The lifestyle is incomparable, but to sustain it you need to make six figures." His perfect solution would be pursuing a career elsewhere and living in Sun Valley part time. "That's a sort of boomeranging, isn't it?" he said.
For Alexa Turzian, returning home doesn't mean she plans to stay here permanently. The 24-year-old valley native sees it as a more fluid process. "I might leave for another five to six years and do something different for a bit, just to appreciate it more here," she said. "The more time I spend here, the more I know I want to live here eventually in the far-off future, if I can afford it, but that doesn't mean I can't or don't want to explore other places and opportunities as well."
Turzian left in 2007 to pursue her studies and passion for skiing in Middlebury, Vermont, and Boulder, Colorado. She returned home this past spring to start a career as a Nordic ski racer. She currently trains with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation's Gold Team, working toward a place on the U.S. Ski Team for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Turzian said Sun Valley is one of the few locations in the country that offers this type of Olympic development program. "This place has a lot for me right now, but not everything," she said. "It's also very comforting. I don't ever feel in danger here. It's good knowing everyone around you, too."
It has long been an obvious choice for Sun Valley's athletically gifted young adults to return home and pursue competitive winter sports careers. However, there are paths to be forged here for young, non-urban professionals looking to pursue careers in the snow sports realm.
Yancy Caldwell, 27, thinks there is plenty of opportunity in Sun Valley, it just requires some creativity to tap. "You can take advantage of this area, but you have to break out and do new and creative stuff," he said. "You can really get creative with how you make a living here."
Yancy and his brother Wyatt, 29, are perfect examples of those who seek this kind of career creativity to tap into. The brothers, both of them valley natives, have worked as professional snowboarders and represented Sun Valley Resort as athlete ambassadors. They consider themselves entrepreneurs in the snow sports industry or, as Yancy puts it, "seasonal employees of attractive adventure." Wyatt believes today's world offers many ways of making a living in Sun Valley that are "not monotonous" and don't involve "working for the man in a big city."
But the brothers are cognizant of the future. "Making ends meet now while supporting just myself is very different from trying to raise a family one day," Wyatt said. This past summer, having been back home for six years (Yancy) and four years (Wyatt), they founded Caldwell Collections, a video production company. "We didn't just want to live here working a job to pay rent," Yancy said. "We wanted to look to the future." The company had a taste of success recently when its short film A Taste of Time, which they call "an experimentation in winter time-lapse photography," won first place in the amateur category at the 2012 Gathering: Film & Music Festival in Sun Valley.
The Caldwells credit many of their behind-the-lens skills to 30-year-old fellow boomeranger Mark Oliver, who shot the portraits of these boomerangers for this story (see sidebar). After eight years away, Oliver returned to the town where he grew up with no intention of staying. However, he quickly realized how conducive his hometown was to his chosen career in filmmaking and photography, and four years ago decided to start his business, Oliver Photo & Film, here. "There's no place in the world like this to find really good contacts," he said. "It's easier to run into them too, because it's such a small community." Technology has also been a real boon to his business, making the choice to operate from central Idaho a lot more viable. "I can send my movies and pictures anywhere in the world over the Internet. Just this week I sent three videos to Europe. There's only a glass ceiling here if you imagine there is. If you keep doing what you're doing and do it well, you'll get to wherever you want to go."
"Technology makes it easier to start a business," agreed Yancy. "Amateurs can take a crack at things now that they couldn't have before. It's a low-risk way of starting a business." He believes that pursuing a career in his hometown after college has not meant any sacrifices, so far. "I'm not sacrificing anything by living here," he said. "Except perhaps a few pretty women."
Wyatt disagrees. "You're sacrificing because it's a higher cost of living," he said. "But the return is a better quality of recreational life. The mountains are right next door, the rivers, the campsites, and that makes living in Sun Valley worth it. Besides, life is too short to wait in traffic!"
For Connor Wade, 25, all these reasons, plus the proximity of his parents, add up to making his hometown the perfect place to raise a family. "I think I will continue to wander and drift on occasion, but when I think about my life in the long-term, when I think about raising a family, I envision those things happening in Sun Valley," he said.
Wade returned this past summer, after seven years away, for a position with the Community School. He believes the time he spent in Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, was critical. "One of the most important things I learned, and brought back with me, was perspective," he said. "I couldn't have learned that without leaving. During my time away from the valley, I met many different people and experienced many new, strange and wondrous things. This allowed me to reconsider just exactly what this place means to me. It is home." According to Wade, whose time away from the valley included adventures such as touring the West Coast with his Portland-based band Plum Sutra, the challenge is in finding a way to use what you come back with to positively affect the community and your own, personal experience.
Returning home has put Wade in the minority of his high school and college friends. "Most of them are out in the big, wide world," he said, "But I think they would all agree that those of us who found a way to make it work here doing what we love are lucky. At the end of the day, it all boils down to how you want to define the concept of home."