There’s just one problem: It’s all overblown.
In the United States, the ideal of early departure from the parental home has always been more myth than reality. Here’s the story you haven’t heard:
We’re fundamentally misunderstanding the numbers. Scare statistics include 18-year-olds. But according to both the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2012 American Community Survey, about 50 percent of men and 44 percent of women from 19 to 24 years old live with their parents. These years entail significant changes in school, work and relationships. Some 19- and 20-year-olds are still in high school. Many more are in college, returning home for the summer or during break, after graduation or between jobs.
As shown in the figure below, the number of children living with their parents drops dramatically when you look at the 25-to-29-year-old age group, once the transition to adulthood gets sorted out. And it plummets by the early 30s, largely disappearing thereafter. At older ages, co-residence may have as much or more to do with the circumstances of parents and other family members than of young people.
This isn’t new. If we look back over the last century, we can see that the rush out of the parental home was a post-World War II phenomenon, and proportions have been growing since 1970. But because the postwar script for adulthood remains etched in the American psyche as the benchmark of “normal,” we fail to see that this period is the outlier. We also don’t acknowledge that today’s rates are generally lower than they were in the decades before the war.
People are also quick to assume that increases in living at home are primarily due to the economy. But the Great Recession has simply heightened trends that have been growing since the 1970s and especially the early 1980s. What hard economic times have done is offer a culturally acceptable explanation for young people and their parents to rationalize their circumstances in the face of a cherished American ideal of independence that triggers embarrassment or shame.
What’s remarkable about the early adult years today is not that young people live with parents but that they live without a spouse. In the mid-20th century, young adults weren’t living alone, and if they were, it wasn’t for long. They were moving in with spouses. Marriage and parenting now culminate the process of becoming adult rather than start it. The postponement of these transitions has freed up the early adult years such that young people today actually live more independently, not less.
Living at home is more common for men and individuals from disadvantaged groups. Given the premium placed on men’s independence, it is surprising that higher proportions of men live with parents in every age group (and, incidentally, in most racial and ethnic groups). But today, men are much more likely than women to drop out of high school, attend college unprepared, suffer unemployment, and engage in high-risk sexual behavior and alcohol and substance abuse. The problems of men interfere with pathways to independence. Men have also always married later than women.
Proportions are also always higher for minority and most immigrant groups (particularly second-generation immigrant youth) than native-born whites, regardless of gender. These groups often have more limited resources and live in major metropolitan areas where costs of living are very high. Some have cultural expectations that young people live at home in order to contribute to the household or to conserve family resources. In nations where there is not the same cultural baggage around leaving home, living at home is not a big deal.
Living at home can be a smart way to get ahead. For many families, living at home is a strategic choice that permits young adults to attend or reduce the cost of higher education, take internships, or create a nest egg. (It may also be necessary for paying down student loans.) For them, it’s not about being locked out of the labor market, but about building a more secure economic future. Moreover, living at home keeps many young adults out of poverty and safe. It’s also made possible because parents and children today are emotionally closer and more socially connected.
Independence is an illusion for adults of every age. It is problematic that “independence” is so rigidly tied to leaving home. Young people who have left the parental home may, for example, be financially or emotionally reliant on parents, while those who live at home may not. It is also peculiar that we expect young people to somehow strive for complete independence when those of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people. It is ironic that much of our “independence,” where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others.