In 1956, there was not much mystery about how young adults lived their lives: The median age at which men got married was 22.5—by age 22.5, half of all men who would get married had already done so. For women, the age at which they first married was even younger—20.1. Today, though, half of all men who will eventually marry for the first time still have not done so by the time they reach age 29.2, and the age of first marriage for women is now 27.1.
Perhaps even more dramatically, a Pew Report estimates that by the time today's young adults reach age 50, 25% of them will have been single their entire lives. Imagine that: A nation of 50-year olds in which one out of every four has never been married.
With so many young people staying single for so long, they are clearly not living the way so many did in the 1950s and 1960s—that is, in nuclear family homes, with just their spouse and kids.
So how are young adults living now? That's one of the questions I set out to answer in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. I learned that they are living in ways ranging from the traditional to the highly innovative. But even when they live in ways that seem traditional, they are putting their own stamp on those arrangements. Here are just a few examples:
1. Sharing a home with friends, but in new ways
The image of young adults living together in one big house is a familiar one. Today many still enjoy living that way. In fact, the practice of sharing a home with people who are not relatives is increasing. But when today's young adults share a place, they often do so in distinctively 21st-century ways:
One of my favorite stories in How We Live Now about young adults sharing a place is about four single, heterosexual men who were close friends at NYU and decided to live together after they graduated. Fourteen years later, their rent doubled and they had to move out. They could have gone their separate ways. But they didn't. In a way, they were a family, and they found a new place together. Going on age 40, they were all still living together, with their own separate suites—and no walls in common, for privacy—but a shared kitchen, living room, and garden.
2. Living in contemporary versions of multi-generational households
For a long time, families who had the opportunity to live together with several generations—all under the same roof—did so. But the possibilities were more limited in the 20th century because the generations often did not overlap because of changing lifespans: For example, a 20-year-old in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandmother than a 20-year old in 1900 was to have a living mother.
Since 1980, multigenerational living has been on the rise. The increase has been especially great in the 21st century for 25-to-34-year-olds. The media has been obsessed with young adults who move back in with their parents (or never leave). They seem to love coming up with derogatory labels to mock these young adults and their parents. The grown kids have been called basement kids, nest dwellers, Generatiom Stuck, the Go Nowhere Generation, and the Failure-to-launch Generation. And the poor things, it is said, have "helicopter parents" hovering over them.
In fact, though, most young adults are not slackers mooching off their parents. They face difficult employment prospects, so it helps to live at home. And the vast majority help to pay for household expenses. Also, many more of them than in the past are pursuing a college education, and young adults who are in college are more likely in general to be living with their parents.
Perhaps one of the best explanations of why young adults have continued to live with their parents, even after the recent recession ended, is one that has gotten very little attention: Relative to the generation before them, today's young adults and their parents actually like each other a lot more. They talk to each other more, do more things together, and enjoy each other's company.
3. Living in intentional communities
Young adults, like adults of every age, like having meaningful connections with other people as well as time and space to themselves. One way to have opportunities for both socializing and solitude is to live in a place of your own, but within a group of people who are committed to living together as a community. Ecovillages and cohousing communities are two examples.
Although cohousing communities tend to attract more middle-aged and older adults, most welcome people of all ages. As more of these communities are created, more young adults will have the opportunity to live that way if they want to.
4. Raising children as a single or not-so-single parent
Single parenting has become so commonplace, it is almost a norm. Some single parents live only with their children, in a place of their own. But others live in more innovative ways: For example, some single mothers find other single-parent families with whom to share a home, using the online registry, CoAbode. That way, the adults have adult companionship and help with the kids, and the kids have playmates under the same roof.
5. Partnering with another adult to be parents, but not romantic partners
Some single people want to find a partner, but haven't yet done so. They also very much want to raise kids, and don't want to wait any longer to start. Other singles also want kids, and never did care about coupling. So now, in this brave new world of creative family forms, they can find another adult who wants the same thing they do, using online registries such as Family by Design. The two adults commit to parenting together, at least until their kids become adults, without also committing to being romantic partners.
6. Living alone
Among young adults who can afford it, living alone is increasingly popular. But their 21st-century solo-living experience is different in important ways than what it would have been like in past decades:
[Note: For collections of articles on various aspects of single life, click here. I've recently added some new topics.]