About 32.1 percent of Americans between 18 to 34 years old lived in their parents’ homes in 2014, edging out the 31.6 percent who were married or living with a partner in their own household, the analysis of Census data found. The remaining 36 percent either live alone, are single parents, or live in dorms or with other relatives.
Many commentators, especially on the right, have seized on such data to excoriate young adults for failing to grow up, refusing to take on adult responsibilities. We’re creating a generation of helpless, overgrown children, the social critics say. We may be doing that, but playing Devil’s advocate here, let’s consider whether the uptick in young adults (18 to 34) living with parents is a sign of immaturity or a social trend we might want to encourage. (Parents of millennials, hold your fire!)
Well, many of these young adults are living in dorms, going to college. Is that really a negative? If we want them to eventually have good jobs, raise families, etc., the number of years in school is going to go up and the dorm-years will increase.
Moreover, let’s consider who the live-with-parents millennials are and why they haven’t set up independent households. The Census Bureau tells us:
Overall, the picture of living with parents or roommates is one of young people who are working toward a firmer footing. For both young and older millennials in these arrangements, they are more likely to be enrolled in school than their peers living independently. In line with attitudes about the importance of education for becoming an adult, many young people wait to set up their own household until after they finish school. Living on their own can be expensive, so young people who live independently tend to have higher incomes, even among young millennials. Among older millennials, more than half of those who live in their own household have incomes of at least $30,000, compared with only one-third of their peers living with roommates and one-quarter living with parents.
To the extent we want young people to get educated, not become laden with debt, living with parents seems to be a smart, mature choice. Aren’t conservatives the ones who keep saying that families and communities should not abdicate important social functions to government?
There is more going on here:
A higher proportion of older millennials living with parents have a disability of some kind. They may be living at home because they need instrumental support or caregiving, factors that could affect their ability to work. Indeed, adult children who are disabled are more likely to live with their parents.28 Seen in this light, the lower rates of working among people living at home may be linked to poorer health and disability.
If a young adult is still in school, trying to acquire the skills to be self-sufficient, or is disabled, it’s hard to see that living with a parent is a bad thing. If housing costs were lower (as they were a generation ago) or schooling was less expensive (as it was a generation ago), one would expect more non-disabled young adults to live on their own.
Let’s also consider that there is some social utility to reducing the number of people living alone. Psychological instability and economic uncertainty — and just plain loneliness — can be be exacerbated living alone. “Single households also face more downside risks, or at least different ones. With a single source of income (and health insurance), single households are more sensitive to job loss, injury, or illness,” other studies have found.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has written a new book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” has cited the incidence of adults living at home as evidence of a prolonged adolescence. (“A great many factors have contributed to this shift toward perpetual adolescence,” he wrote in a recent op-ed referring to the Pew study. “The economy has something to do with it, of course—but social and cultural developments do too. The list of culprits includes our incredible wealth and the creature comforts to which our children are accustomed; our reluctance to expose young people to the demands of real work; and the hostage-taking hold that computers and mobile devices have on adolescent attention.”) But in an email exchange, with typical thoughtfulness, he told me that the situation is more nuanced than some might imagine. “I am actually a strong believer in multigenerational households as well,” he said. His concern, he says, is behavior that is the “result of reduced opportunities and passive drift back into a comforting cocoon without a whole lot of striving going on at the same time.”
The senator is right to zero in on the issue of why people are living with parents and what they are doing. The Census Bureau gets to the nub of what may be the most troubling statistic:
At 24.2 million people, the population of 18- to 34-year-olds living at home is a large and diverse group. Most of them— about 81 percent—are either working or going to school. This should not be surprising because most people aged 18 to 24 are living in their parents’ home, attending classes or working part-time. On the other hand, we might be surprised if their older peers do not contribute to the family budget because they have had more time to finish school and find a stable job. Yet, of the 8.4 million 25- to 34-year-olds living at home, about 1 in 4 are idle, meaning they are not in school and do not work.
Ah, so is this the quintessential millennial sleeping in the basement, watching TV all day? Well, maybe. Once again, the reality is more complex: “They are more likely to have a child, so they may be caring for family, and over one-quarter have a disability of some kind.” Mounds of studies have documented the challenges and stresses of single parenthood. While delaying childbirth until one is in a stable relationship and/or economically self-sufficient is ideal, living with a parent might be a far better choice than living “independently” with government support.
A final point is worth making: Many young people living at home pay rent or provide help to aging parents. The relationships are not exclusively “parasitic,” as some would have us believe.
In sum, the phenomenon of young adults living at home is a lot more complex than much of the commentary suggests. The category would include a 20-something single woman in her first job, trying to save for a first home and repaying student debt, paying “rent” to Mom and Dad. It would include a 19-year-old male at a state university living in the dorms; a young widow with an infant; and a young person with a mental disability. Sure, there are basement-dwellers living unproductive lives. But there are also millions of young people trying to get adequate schooling, managing with a disability, coping with single parenthood or simply attempting to function in an uncertain economy. The subject is a serious one and should be treated as such, not as another nugget of information with which to indict an entire generation.