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Why Are So Many Young Adults Living With Their Parents?

There's a reason you haven't heard.

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Young adults just set a new standard: For the first time since 1880, one particular way of living is more popular among young adults than any other—living with their parents.

Among 18- to 34-year olds, a greater percentage live with their parents than with a spouse or partner, or in any other arrangement. Just over 32% live in their parents' home, compared to just under 32% who live with a spouse or cohabitate with a romantic partner. The statistical difference may be small, but the historical trend is huge: In 1960, nearly twice as many young adults lived with a spouse or partner—62%, compared to just under 32% now. In 1960, only 20% of young adults lived with their parents.

The Pew Report that documented this first-ever reversal in the popularity of living with parents vs. partners devoted a lot of space to the question of why this happened. They trotted out all of the most obvious possibilities, but neglected one of the most intriguing psychological reasons.

First, the most obvious reason more young adults are living with their parents than with a spouse—many of them aren't married! One of the most significant demographic shifts over recent decades is the demise of marriage and the rise of single people. In 1960, 72% of American adults aged 18 and older were married; today, just over half are.

When I mention this statistic, and others like it, I get the same response—oh, people are just cohabiting instead. But the number of single people is growing dramatically, even when cohabitors are set aside. To quote the Pew Report:

"[I]n terms of prevalence, cohabitation has not become a substitute for marriage. Young adults are not simply less likely to be married; they are forgoing partners altogether, whether spouses or cohabiting partners."

But just because young adults are staying single in record numbers does not mean that they must therefore live with their parents. They could opt for another way of living that has grown in popularity since the middle of last century—living alone.

A place of one's own, though, requires economic resources, and not all young adults have those. Financial factors are especially important for young men:

"Employed young men are much less likely to live at home than young men without a job, and employment among young men has fallen significantly in recent decades…"

"Similarly with earnings, young men's wages (after adjusting for inflation) have been on a downward projector since 1970…As wages have fallen, the share of young men living in the home of their parent(s) has risen."

Still, even financially strapped young adults have options other than living with their parents. They could, for example, look for roommates, and some do.

The reason the Pew Report did not mention why living with parents is so popular now is a psychological and interpersonal one: Young adults and their parents like each other. If you can't imagine why they wouldn't, you are probably too young to have lived through the 1960s.

Here's some of what I said about this in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century:

In a 2013 poll of parents of 18-29-year-olds, about three-quarters said their relationship with their adult child was mostly positive, and only two percent said it was mostly negative. Even more strikingly, when asked about the sources of enjoyment in their lives, more of the parents mentioned their relationship with their grown child (86 percent) than their relationship with their spouse or partner (75 percent).

The positive feelings between the generations seem to be grounded in the intimacy that comes with frequent interactions and knowledge of the little ups and downs of everyday life. More than half of 18-29 year-olds, and more than half of the mothers and even the fathers of grown kids that age, have contact with each other every day or almost every day.

Scholars Karen Fingerman and Frank Furstenberg underscore how different today’s rate of connecting is from the past:

“In 1986, about half of parents reported that they had spoken with a grown child in the past week. In 2008, 87 percent said they had. In 1988, less than half of parents gave advice to a grown child in the past month, and fewer than one in three had provided any hands-on help. Recent data show that nearly 90 percent of parents give advice and 70 percent provide some type of practical assistance.”

The new closeness is not just a side effect of a bad economy and it is not even something that can be pinned solely on the relatively recent ubiquity of cell phones:

“We first observed a shift in this relationship [between parents and young adult children] in 1999, when the economy was booming. Even before the cellphone era, many 20-something women talked with their mothers several times a week.”

…In the surveys of millennials and their parents, most were not living together. Perhaps that makes it easier for them to feel mostly positively about each other. But many young adults living with their parents also describe very fond feelings about their parents and their living situation. In a survey of 18-24 year olds who had never left their parents’ home, four out of five said that they never left because they enjoy living with their parents and even more said that their parents make it easy for them to stay. Move up to the next oldest group of grown children, 25-34 year olds, and include those who returned home as well as those who never left, and the sentiment is still overwhelmingly accepting. More than three-quarters say they are satisfied with their living arrangement.

Compared to parents whose grown kids have left the nest and never returned, parents whose kids have come back to live with them are just as satisfied with their family life and their housing situation. They feel emotionally closer to their grown children than they did when the kids were away, and they enjoy more companionship with them, too.

[Note: My latest guest post in the Solo-ish column of the Washington Post is: What do singles need more than a mate? Community.]

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