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More Than Half of Young Adults Are Now Living With Parents

The pandemic forced young adults to live with their parents. Will they stay?

More than half of all young adults in the U.S. now live with their parents, according to a just-released report from the Pew Research Center. That hasn’t happened since the end of the Great Depression.

In February 2020, before the pandemic, 47 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds lived with their parents. As of July, that number rose to 52 percent. The size of the increase varied with different demographic groups; for example, it was bigger for the youngest adults (18-24) than slightly older ones (25-29). The overall trend, though, of a rise in the number of young adults living with their parents, has been true for all major groups: women and men; Hispanic, Black, Asian, and White; urban and rural; Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.

The youngest people have been hit especially hard by the pandemic; it is not surprising that they are living with their parents in greater numbers. The Pew report noted that the youngest adults have been most likely to have lost their jobs or taken a pay cut. The proportion of them who are not enrolled in school and not employed, either, has more than doubled between February and June, from 11 percent to 28 percent.

What is even more interesting, I think, are the psychological dynamics between parents and their grown children that preceded the pandemic.

What Happened Last Time Young Adults Were Economically Imperiled

Before COVID-19, the last time young adults took a big hit, economically, was during the Great Recession of December 2007 through June 2009. The Pew Research Center was tracking living arrangements then, too. Five years after that recession ended, their researchers thought more young adults would be living independently. Much to their surprise, the numbers actually declined. In 2007, 71 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived independently of their parents. By 2015, that number dropped to 67 percent.

The researchers looked into all sorts of explanations, but none of them panned out. For example:

  • Did the unemployment rate decrease for millennials? Yes, it did. That should have helped them move to households of their own.
  • Did more millennials have full-time jobs? (If they just moved from unemployment to part-time work, then they may not have been able to live independently.) Yes, full-time employment increased for millennials since the end of the recession.
  • Were they getting paid any more than before? Yes, wages increased modestly.
  • One of the things that millennials did when they could not get jobs during the recession was going to college. As rates of college enrollment rose, so did rates of living with parents. By 2014, with the recession in the past, college enrollment dropped a bit. But that decline in going to college was not linked to any decline in living with parents.
  • What about student loan debt? If young adults were just as saddled with debt after the recession as they were during it (or even more so), then that could help explain why they have not moved out of their parents’ places. But young adults with no education beyond high school should not have any student loan debt, and their decline in living on their own was the same as it was for those who had spent time in college.

The Pew authors seemed stumped. I wasn’t.

It’s Not the 1980s Anymore; Parents and Their Young Adult Children Like Each Other

While researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I talked to young adults and their parents. I also studied the relevant social science research, as contributed by such outstanding scholars as Jeffrey Arnett and Karen Fingerman. I think I know at least one of the reasons why young adults were in no special hurry to flee from their parents’ homes after the recession ended. Unlike the young adults in the decades around 1980 (when the percentage of young adults living with their parents was at or near a record low), today’s emerging adults actually like their parents, and their 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. There was once much talk of a generation gap, but now millennials and their parents have a lot in common.

What Will Happen After the Pandemic?

Once the pandemic is mostly behind us, will young adults leave their parents’ homes? Or will they stick around, as they did after the recession? Maybe it will depend on whether, during such trying circumstances, they and their parents have continued to enjoy one another’s company.

The reopening of college dorms should matter, too, but that will not show up in the relevant data, the Current Population Survey. That’s because students who are not married and living in dorms are counted as living in their family home.

One factor that has reliably motivated young adults to set up a place of their own is marriage or a commitment to a long-term romantic relationship. But the age at which young adults first marry, among those who do marry, has been rising steadily for more than half a century. In 1956, the median age of first marriage was 22.5 for men and 20.1 for women. By 2019, it shot up to 29.8 for men and 28 for women. That means, for example, that of all the men who married for the first time in 2019, half of them were older than 29.8.

What’s more, as an August 2020 Pew report noted, half of today’s solo single people are not interested in a romantic relationship or even a date. Of course, those single people could move out of their parents’ home and into a place of their own, if they can afford it. Or they could live with friends or roommates or other relatives. But will they? It will be interesting to see.

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