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.
“They have high expectations for their relationships as well,” Konstam says. “Those high expectations are a mixed bag, because on one hand you’re aspiring to something that will yield meaning and purpose. But, on the other hand, it may be very frustrating to achieve.”
Indeed, fewer young adults are marrying — just 25 percent of 18- to 31-year-olds were married in 2012, compared with 30 percent in 2007. And those who do marry are delaying their unions — the median age for marriage today is 27 for women and 29 for men, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1960, it was 20 for women and 22 for men.
“People used to marry young just to get out of the house,” says Henig. “In a way, this generation is going back to the pattern of living at home until they’re married. So this [increase] is hardly a sign of being lazy and aimless. It’s just part of being in your 20s.”
All signs indicate a generation doing it their way — and it’s not necessarily the wrong way. In fact, Henig points out, they’re quite often saving themselves (and their parents) financial headaches down the road.
“The refuge of home can be a lifeline, sometimes meaning the difference between barely getting by and falling over the edge into poverty,” she writes in “Twentysomething.” “In 2009 the U.S. Census Bureau tried to quantify the benefit of living at home for young people at the bottom of the income heap. At a time when the poverty level for 25- to 34-year-olds was 8.5 percent, demographers calculated that if twenty- and thirty-somethings had not been living with their parents, the poverty rate in this age range would have been 42.8 percent.”
Often overlooked in the millennial conversation, Arnett says, is that most young adults move out within six months to a year.
“They almost all move home for economic reasons, and they almost always move out as soon as possible,” Arnett says. “Even if they get along with their parents, they’d still rather not have them looking over their shoulder.”