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 ages 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 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 may 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?” (Hudson Street Press). “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, the vast majority 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?” (Workman).
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” (New Horizon Press). “That differs somewhat from previous generations.”
Arnett says young Americans change jobs an average of seven times from ages 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.”
Often overlooked in the millennials 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,” says Arnett. “Even if they get along with their parents, they’d still rather not have them looking over their shoulder.”
They want to launch into a full life, after all, as badly as their parents want them to, says Konstam.
“Emerging adults and their parents tend to have a very similar worldview,” she says. “What their parents want for them is very frequently the same thing the kids want. They do want to be successful at work. They do want to commit to another person. They do want to own a house. But they tend to do it in their own way.”
And a brief stint at home is more likely to help, rather than hinder, those goals, she says.
“I would argue that having the option of moving back to your parents’ home serves as protection against impulsive decisions,” Konstam says. “Having a safe harbor helps emerging adults assess and view their options before jumping in as they figure out where they are and where they want to be in terms of their careers and in terms of their relationships.”