Time to reassess reaction to young adults living back home

  • Article by: HEIDI STEVENS , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2014 - 2:06 PM

It’s time to reassess reaction to young adults living back home with Mom and Dad.

Poor millennials.

So willing are we to believe that today’s young adults are a coddled, shiftless lot that every study directed at this generation of 18- to 31-year-olds is cause for renewed hand-wringing.

Take a Pew Research Center report last year that found 36 percent of adults 18 to 31 live in their parents’ homes — the highest share in at least four decades. Higher, that is, than the 32 percent who lived at home in 2007, at the onset of the Great Recession. Higher than the 34 percent who lived at home in 2009, when the recession officially ended. Higher than the 32 percent who lived at home in 1968, the earliest comparable data available.

The report prompted a slew of sound-the-alarm articles. From the New York Times to CNN, from the Huffington Post to Salon, sociologists, economists and wealth managers weighed in with theories and advice. (“They could be there forever if you don’t charge them some rent and make them do some chores,” one certified financial planner told the Daily Beast.)

But a closer look at the 2012 Census Bureau data analyzed by Pew — and equally important, the factors driving those numbers — indicates the trend actually might be cause for celebration. Cautious, fiscally responsible celebration, but celebration nonetheless.

“There are a lot of social scientists who see this whole thing in a positive light,” says science writer Robin Marantz Henig, co-author of “Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?” “They see it as evidence that this generation is making wiser, more careful choices.”

First, a look at the numbers. Of the 21.6 million millennials living with their parents in 2012, most were younger than 25. Only 16 percent of 25- to 31-year-olds lived at home, compared with 56 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

Furthermore, rising college enrollment is one of the leading causes behind those figures. The census counts college students — even those residing in dormitories during the academic year — as living with their parents.

In March 2012, according to the Pew report, 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college. That’s a 4-percentage-point increase compared with March 2007.

These are hardly the directionless layabouts we keep hearing about, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, executive director of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood.

“The stereotype of kids moving home in order to mooch off their parents for as long as possible doesn’t hold up,” says Arnett, co-author of “When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?”

From Arnett’s book: “In 1960 only 33 percent of young people attended college, and most of them were men; today, 70 percent of high school graduates enter college the next year. It now takes an average of five to six years to obtain a ‘four-year degree.’ All over the world, more young people are obtaining more education than ever before.”

What they’re not necessarily obtaining, however, is employment. The Pew report found that 63 percent of 18- to 31-year-olds had jobs in 2012, compared with 70 percent in 2007. Forty-five percent of the millennials living at home were unemployed.

This is partly because of a sluggish economy and partly because millennials are holding out hope for fulfilling work, experts say.

“They [prioritize] purpose, meaning and self-growth in their careers,” says Varda Konstam, a professor of counseling and school psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of “Parenting Your Emerging Adult: Launching Kids From 18 to 29.” “That differs somewhat from previous generations.”

Arnett says young Americans change jobs an average of seven times from 20 to 29, which is a significant departure from earlier generations, who settled into stable careers shortly after graduating from high school or college.

“Emerging adults zigzag in their careers,” Konstam says. “It causes their parents anxiety because they often moved along more linearly.”

Millennials, often pegged as commitment-phobic, are also wary of entering into unfulfilling marriages.

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