For the past several years, I've been struck by the many news reports that peg young adults as slackers. 

Reading this piece from the Social Q's column in today's New York Times (2/26/2012), I knew the 'cluckers' would be out again in force:  

Question:  My husband of three months and I are medical students. We rely on a combination of loans, savings and parental support for tuition and living expenses. My parents cut me a check at the beginning of each semester. His parents receive his monthly credit card statement and pay it directly. This leads to conversations like: "What did you buy at Banana Republic for $42?" I find this intrusive. My husband does not. How should I address the situation?

Elizabeth, New York City

Response: I hate when people pay my bills, too. Such needless generosity! Try saying, "Thank you" - often.

I agree with Philip Galanes, the columnist.  But I can also hear tongues clucking across the world, disparaging the lack of independence and gratitude of 'today's youth'.  

As the parent of a 20-something, a college professor with students launching like lemmings into the current job market, and the friend of half a dozen parents whose kids are struggling to get on their feet, I'd like to look at some facts.  Are today's youth really less independent than their parents or grandparents were?

Employment, Unemployment, and Internships

The unemployment rate.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.1% of workers are unemployed (these numbers are from January, 2012).  But that's for all workers.  For 16-19 year olds not in school, this rate tops 25%.  For adults over 25, the rate is 7.6%.  If the overall rate for all workers 16+ is 9.1%, and it's 7.6% for those 25 and over, this means there are a LOT of young people out there, actively looking for work, but unemployed.  And these figures do not include those who are employed part time or under-employed.  

As someone who graduated from college during the last big unemployment peak - the early 1980's - that doesn't look like young people are 'failing to launch' into adult roles because they're lazy.  It looks like they just aren't out-competing the many older, more experienced adults fighting for those same jobs.  College diploma in hand or not.*

Internships.  Like many faculty with ambitious students eager to polish their resumes and land a great job, I spend a lot of time helping to place students in internships.  You can argue whether not this exploits young workers (for a series of columns on this topic, click here).  You can also argue that it gives wealthier students whose parents can afford to support them an additional edge over their less fortunate peers.  But there is no question that is shows that young people today are willing to work long, hard hours WITHOUT PAY for the eventual hope of bettering themselves.  That doesn't sound like the behavior of slackers to me.  

Moving Out: A Marker for Adulthood

One of the signature 'problems' that cluckers point to as proof that young people today aren't independent is the many people in their 20's still living at home with their parents.

I will not make the argument that it is unrealistic for unemployed youth to spend money on rent when someone is offering them a free bed to sleep in.  Nor will I make the argument that most young adults desperately want to move out of their parents' homes to get more space and more autonomy.  Instead let's look at some numbers.  These are from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green University.  I recommend their new series on emerging adults as a source of information on this topic.  

There are several ways to look at these data, and mine is somewhat different in emphasis from the Center.  First, it is definitely true that youth are somewhat more likely to be living at home now than they were in 1960.  This is particularly true for women.  There has been a 40% increase in women living at home since 1960 - moving from 35%-49%.  There has only been a 10% increase for men - 52%-57%, with a slight dip in the last five years.

Of course, other things have changed as well.  You'll notice (and perhaps be surpirsed by) the fact that fewer women live at home than men do.  Women also marry earlier.  In 1960, the median age of marriage in the US was 20.3 years old, while the median age of marrage for men was 22.8.  Think about that.  According to the chart, 35% of all 18-24 year old women were living with their parents in 1960.  And half of women were married by 20.  Thus suggests to me that a big reason that people left home in earlier generations was that they married younger.  The median age of first marriage now is 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women.  

(By the way, before concluding that late marriage is another sign of 'immaturity', it should be noted that the 1950's were an anomolie in that regard - the lowest point in a century.  In 1890, the median age of marriage was 26 for men and 22 for women.  Why?  Because the old norm was that you needed to be established and have a job to get married - until then, you'd live at home and wait.  After WWII, that norm changed, with many young people marrying but getting support from parents.)


Kids do move out and move back, however.  We are moving back to a more fluid time in transition from adulthood, again harking back to the turn of the last century.  Figure 2 shows that among 18-24 year olds, almost half have launched, while half have launched and then retuned back to their family of origin.

Is this sign of immaturity?  Or is it a sign that kids have tried to make it on their own but something fell through - their roommates left, they lose a job, they moved in with a romantic partner and things didn't work out . . . 

Although few comparable data are available for earlier generations, to me, the most interesting part of those figures in that little tan section at the top: the youth who never left home. That number is quite small.  It includes lots of young people who never scraped enough money together to put a down payment on an apartment or who are scrimping now by living at home while they try to get a job or save for the future. And it includes kids returning home to get a bit more training at a community college before hitting the job market again.

One of the primary functions of families as social institutions is to provide pooled resources for members so that they can become productive members of society.  In an ideal world, parents take care of their young kids.  Middle aged adults support their parents in old age.  Older adults often help to support their middle aged children or grandchildren as they struggle through hard times.  They provide down payments for houses, money for college, and hand-me-down furniture for new apartments.  Families provide pooled resources during times of transition.

Looking at the data, I see little evidence that young adults now are any more - or less - the recipient of those pooled resources than they have been in the past.  And certainly no evidence that they are too 'lazy' or 'dependent' to make it on their own.  They are doing what kids have always done - getting help during a tough transition from school to work.  And if they make that transition successfully, I have every faith that they'll be out their giving a helping hand to their parents when their parents need it too.

follow me on Twitter @pt_think_kids

(c) Nancy Darling, 2011. All rights reserved.

* For truly sobering data on the unemployment rates among those with only a high school diploma, see the graph below.  Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote a fascinating blog on this topic in the New York Times.

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