There's a surplus of statistics about how tough the economy is on kids currently graduating from college. But one statistic says that 85% of graduates - "the Boomerang Generation" - return to live at home with their parents. That figure is wrong, says Louis Jacobson, who tracked down its source for Politifact.com. He talks to Bob about where it came from, and why it circulated for two years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This month, as students graduate from college, a new survey released this week by Rutgers University shows that only about half of graduates from 2006 to 2011 are currently working full time. The media have crowned this unfortunate lot “the Boomerang Generation” because they tend to come right back to their parents after graduation. In fact, there’s an oft-repeated statistic about these boomerang kids.
MAN: A lot of college students move back in with their parents, don’t they?
WOMAN: Eighty-five percent is the new number now.
WOMAN: That’s reprehensible.
MAN: That’s a lot of Star Trek I posters on the wall.
BOB GARFIELD: All joking aside, that 85% number is astonishing, and false, says Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact. He decided to look into this two-year-old statistic after seeing it in a recent anti-Obama ad.
LOUIS JACOBSON: We saw a TV ad by the group American Crossroads, which is a GOP-aligned group. They did an ad targeting President Obama, attacking his stewardship of the economy, and one of the little title cards they had – it said 85% moving back in with their parents. And they cited it to Time Magazine. And so, I decided to check into it.
BOB GARFIELD: It started at Time Magazine, but that was not the ultimate origin of this bad statistic.
LOUIS JACOBSON: Right. Time was somewhere in the middle. This statistic had appeared in a variety of places. First of all, in the media it was in CNN Money, Time Magazine, The New York Post. It later appeared in the, I believe, U.S. News & World Report and all over the place in blogs, including partisan political blogs on the left and the right. So it really had gotten pretty wide exposure by the time it had hit this campaign ad.
BOB GARFIELD: All of which traced back to one place in Philadelphia.
LOUIS JACOBSON: Correct, a group called Twentysomething. So I found their web site and didn’t find any news release on this poll, so I thought I’d give ‘em a call, called up and the phone was disconnected. I looked around a little bit more, found that there was really nothing new on the site since about 2009.
Since I couldn’t get to the company directly, I tried to find some of the staffers on their staff list and try to contact them in case they do go out of business, or whatever. And that’s where I started finding some strange things. There were some people there who I reached who said even though their photos were on the web site, they’d never worked there. And I found a news release written by somebody who said she didn’t write it and had had no contact with this company in two, three, four years. A couple of staffers who I was not able to track down by name ran the photographs through the Google search engine. It turns out two of the people had photographs who were basically stock photos-
-of female African-American businesswomen-
-who had appeared on various sort of business sites and clearly were not real people. I had trouble tracking down one person who was the second name on the staff list, a guy named Daniel Jay. Finally, I figured out there was a Daniel J. Morrison who had the same last name as the founder and the president of this company. Daniel J. Morrison is the father of David Morrison, the founder. So all very odd.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you ever track down David Morrison?
LOUIS JACOBSON: He somehow found out that I was doing the story. Somebody I spoke to must have told him. He called me. He said he was in the Bahamas. He said that he had left the company, shut it down, essentially, a couple of years earlier. On the specific question of the poll, he said that he could not tell me anything about it because of a nondisclosure agreement with the client who had sponsored it.
Then I asked him, can I go to the client and see if they would break the agreement to get the information, and he said, no, I can’t do that. It would be a violation of the contract. And he basically ended the call there and said, please don’t call me back again.
BOB GARFIELD: Suffice to say that this is a dubious source for any kind of statistic, and it may have been invented out of whole cloth. You’re familiar with the expression “Too good to check?”
LOUIS JACOBSON: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: How does that work into the narrative here? I mean, 85% of kids sleeping in their old beds, you know, that’s – that’s so irresistible if you’re writing a story about the economy. Who wants to find out if it’s true? It – it could mess up your lead.
LOUIS JACOBSON: Certainly [LAUGHS]. Certainly, the speeding up of the need to post to the Web on blogs and Twitter in real time has put increasing pressure on journalists to – I guess to put it bluntly, cut corners. And, you know, I think we’re all guilty of this. But this is just a real wakeup call, I think, for all of us that you really need to get some kind of validation of these statistics and not just rely on what some other journalist has already published because you don’t know what their standards are.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you ever find out, a – actually, what percentage of Millennials are Boomerangers?
LOUIS JACOBSON: There was a good, solid verifiable study done by the Pew Center, which came out in March of this year. There are different ways to calculate it. It sort of ranges in the 20% range to 40, 45%. It’s somewhere in that ballpark, but that is a quarter to a half the size of the 85% figure, which is so commonly cited.
BOB GARFIELD: Louis, thank you very much.
LOUIS JACOBSON: Thank you so much.
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BOB GARFIELD: Louis Jacobson is a senior writer at Politifact.com.