More than half of all young adults in the United States now live with their parents, according to a recently released report from the Pew Research Center. This has not happened since the end of the Great Depression.
In February 2020, before the pandemic, 47% of 18-29 year olds lived with their parents. By July, that number had risen to 52%. The magnitude of the increase varied among different demographic groups; for example, it was greater for younger adults (18-24 years old) than for slightly older adults (25-29 years old). The general trend, however, of increasing numbers of young adults living with their parents, held true for all major groups: women and men; Hispanic, black, Asian and white; urban and rural; Northeast, Midwest, South and West.
Younger people have been particularly affected by the pandemic; it is not surprising that they are living with their parents in greater numbers. The Pew Report noted that younger adults were the most likely to have lost their jobs or suffered a cut in pay. The proportion of them who are also out of school and unemployed more than doubled between February and June, from 11% to 28%.
What’s even more interesting, I think, are the psychological dynamics between parents and their adult children that preceded the pandemic.
What happened the last time young adults were economically at risk
Before COVID-19[female[feminine, the last time young adults were affected economically was during the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009. The Pew Research Center was followed the living conditions then too. Five years after this recession ended, their researchers believed more young adults would live independently. To their surprise, the numbers actually went down. In 2007, 71% of 18-34 year olds lived independently of their parents. In 2015, that number fell to 67%.
Researchers looked at all kinds of explanations, but none of them came to fruition. For example:
- Has the unemployment rate fallen for millennials? Yes he did. It should have helped them move into their own homes.
- Did more millennials have full-time jobs? (If they just went from unemployment to part-time work, they may not have been able to live independently.) Yes, full-time employment has increased for millennials since the recession ended.
- Were they paid more than before? Yes, wages have increased modestly.
- One of the things millennials did when they couldn’t find a job during the recession was go to college. As college enrollment rates increased, so did rates of living with parents. In 2014, with the recession in the past, college enrollment declined a bit. But this drop in college education was not related to a drop in living with parents.
- What About Student Loan Debt? If young adults were just as indebted after the recession as they were during it (or even more), that could explain why they did not leave their parents’ house. But young adults without education beyond high school should not have student loan debt, and their decline in life on their own was the same as that of those who had spent time in college.
Pew’s writers looked puzzled. I wasn’t.
It’s not the 1980s anymore; Parents and their young adult children love each other
By searching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I spoke to young adults and their parents. I have also studied relevant research in the social sciences, as contributed by such outstanding academics as Jeffrey Arnett and Karen Fingerman. I think I know at least one of the reasons young adults weren’t in a particular rush to flee their parents’ homes after the recession ended. Unlike the young adults of the decades around 1980 (when the percentage of young adults living with their parents was at or near an all-time high), today’s emerging adults Like their parents and parents feel close to them. As I explained in more detail here previously, they stay in touch, by choice, and enjoy each other’s company. In the past, there was a lot of talk of a generation gap, but today millennials and their parents have a lot in common.
What will happen after the pandemic?
Once the pandemic is largely behind us, will young adults leave their parents’ homes? Or will they stay, as they did after the recession? Perhaps it will depend on whether, under such difficult circumstances, they and their parents continued to enjoy each other’s company.
The reopening of college dorms should also matter, but that won’t show up in the relevant data, the current population survey. This is because students who are not married and who live in dormitories are counted as living in their family home.
One factor that has reliably motivated young adults to start their own place is marriage or a long-term commitment romantic relationship. But the age at which young adults first marry, among those who do, have been rising steadily for more than half a century. In 1956, the median age at first marriage was 22.5 years for men and 20.1 years for women. In 2019, it rose to 29.8 for men and 28 for women. This means, for example, that of all the men who got married for the first time in 2019, half of them were over 29.8 years old.
Additionally, as an August 2020 Pew report noted, half of today’s singles aren’t interested in a romantic relationship or even a date. Of course, these singles could leave their parents’ home and settle in a place of their own, if they can afford it. Or they could live with friends or roommates or other relatives. But will they do it? It will be interesting to see.