Millennials have been the targets of a lot of bashing lately. They have been described as basement kids, nest dwellers, generation stuck, the go-nowhere generation, and the “failure-to-launch” group, all because they have been living with their parents at numbers that have been increasing since 1980.
Not everyone engaged in the sport of mocking millennials, but even among those who did, there was one silver lining they foresaw: Part of the problem was the lousy economy. Once that improved, millennials would be on their way out of their parents’ places and into their own.
Now we have the data, as compiled by the reputable Pew Research Center (“More Millennials Living with Family Despite Improved Job Market,” July 29, 2015). The researchers examined the rates of independent living vs. living with family for 18- to 34-year olds now that five years have passed since the recession ended. The results were not at all what most people expected:
“…the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds are less likely to be living independently of their families and establishing their own households today than in the depths of the Great Recession…” [emphasis mine]
The authors looked into all sorts of explanations, but none of them panned out. For example:
- Did the unemployment rate decrease for millennials (or has the recovery not included them)? Yes, it did. That should have helped them move to places of their own.
- Did more millennials have full-time jobs? (If they just moved from unemployment to part-time work, then they may not have been able to live independently.) Yes, full-time employment has increased for millennials since the end of the recession.
- Are they getting paid any more than before? Yes, wages have increased modestly.
- One of the things that millennials did when they could not get jobs during the recession was go to college. As rates of college enrollment rose, so did rates of living with parents. By 2014, with the recession in the past, college enrollment dropped a bit. But that decline in going to college was not linked to any decline in living with parents.
- What about student loan debt? If young adults were just as saddled with debt now as they were during the recession (or even more so), then that could help explain why they have not moved out of their parents’ places. But young adults with no education beyond high school should not have any student loan debt, and their decline in living on their own is the same as it is for those who have spent time in college.
The Pew authors seemed stumped. I’m not.
While researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I talked to young adults and their parents. I also studied the relevant social science research, as contributed by such outstanding scholars as Jeffrey Arnett and Karen Fingerman. I think I know at least one of the reasons why young adults are in no special hurry to flee from their parents’ homes. Unlike the young adults in the decades around 1980 (the year when fewer young adults than ever before or after lived with their parents), today’s emerging adults actually like their parents, and their parents feel close to them. They stay in touch – by choice – and enjoy each other’s company. There was once much talk of a generation gap, but now millennials and their parents have a lot in common.
You can read more of the specifics of the research and the reasoning in How We Live Now. Here, I’ll just share one more thing. When I originally wrote that part of the book, I introduced it with some stories from my own life. They were cut. Here’s that section if anyone is interested:
In 1980, I was 27, in the second year of my first job as a university professor, and living on my own. If I had been living with my parents, I would have been mortified.
I grew up in the Vietnam era. At home during my teenage years, and during the summers of my college years, my older brother and I played Beatles music on the stereo as we helped clean up after dinner. My mother called some of our other favorite singers “the screamers” and “the criers.” My father got into it with my brother. I don’t know if he was more exasperated by my brother’s long hair or John Lennon’s proclamation that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Then there was the attire. For a high school performance, I once wore hot pink hot pants. In the most religious moment of my entire life, I am now on my knees thanking the dear Lord that there was no Facebook at the time to preserve that image for posterity.
At college (Vassar, 1975), the scent of weed wafted from under the doors of the Davison dorm rooms. Occasionally, protesters shouting anti-war slogans stomped through the hallways. On Sunday nights, a parade of us sat on the cold stone stairwell steps leading down to the phone booth, waiting for our turn to get our once-a-week call in to our parents. I felt like the odd person out, because even though many of my beliefs and values diverged from my parents’, I still loved them and looked forward to seeing them. A surprising number of my classmates were contemptuous of their parents. (I met a few – they had a point.) Nonetheless, if I had ended up back in my parents’ home after completing my education, I would not have been the only one feeling self-conscious about it; my parents, too, would have wondered what went wrong.
Yet from 1980 on, more and more young adults did move back in with their parents – or never left.
Mother and daughter photo available from Shutterstock