To understand why so many Millennials are living at home today, look closer at the nuances from the recent headline-making Pew study. Karen Carr, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, weighs in.
The Internet is always abuzz with opinions, critiques, and observations about Millennials: We demand a quiet workplace, we’re impatient investors, and we’re transforming cities. You may have also come across a headline or two recently about how we just can’t seem to move out of our parents’ basements. Are we lazy? Unmotivated? Before you criticize, understand there’s much more to this story.
Pew Research Center took a deep dive into U.S. census data to uncover some big trends about Millennials, focusing on one very simple aspect of their lives: where they live. By analyzing census data from 1880 to 2014, they found that—for the first time—more young people, ages 18 to 34, are living at home with their parents than living with romantic partners. The statistics provide food for thought about education, marriage, employment, gender, and race.
From 1880 onward, most young people lived with a romantic partner or spouse. That all changed in 2014, when U.S. census data showed 32.1 percent of young people living in their parents’ home, as opposed to 31.6 percent living with a spouse or partner. Although the number of young people living at home with Mom and Dad is now only slightly higher than those living with a partner, it does represent a much bigger trend over the last 135 years.
In 1880, 45 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds lived with a spouse or partner. This number steadily ticked up and peaked around 1960 at 62 percent. Since then, the share of young people living with a spouse or partner has been on the decline, while those living at home with their parents is on the rise.
All this makes for a good headline, but it doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. Yes, it’s true that more young people are living at home than with a partner for the first time in history, but this is not a record high. That came in 1940 when 35 percent of young people were living at home with their parents. Before that, 30 percent of young people lived at home in 1880. This historical context doesn’t make the 32.1 percent of young people living at home in 2014 stand out all that much.
Who’s Living at Home?
To define and understand why so many Millennials are living at home today, look closer at the nuances in the Pew study.
First, there’s a gender gap: Men are much more likely than women to live at home. This has always been true historically (or at least since 1880 when data began being collected).
Second, the trend is seen across all racial and ethnic groups, although there are slightly more black and Hispanic young people living with a parent than whites (36 percent versus 30 percent). The gender gap also holds true across races and ethnic groups.
Third (and perhaps unsurprisingly), young people who live at home are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to have a college degree. Historically, a college degree tends to lead to better job opportunities, which make it easier to strike out on your own and get a place by yourself, with a partner, or even with roommates.
It may be tempting to simply blame this all on 2008’s recession, however, this trend can actually be seen well before that. In 2014, 71 percent of young men were employed. This is the result of steady decline since the peak in 1960 at 84 percent. Not only are more young men unemployed, those who do find work earn less than their parents did at their age (when adjusted for inflation). As wages and employment opportunities fall, it’s no surprise that more young men find themselves living at home.
The upward tick of men living at home is outpacing women, but the overall direction is the same. So, why are more young women living at home than before? The same argument about education and employment doesn’t hold true here. Women are more educated and more work outside the home than ever before. One explanation for this divergence is that women are much more likely to be living in their own household as single parents.
First Comes Love, Then Comes…Marriage?
Marital status has always had a significant impact on where young people live. Marriage rates have been declining for decades, which can explain some of the spike in young people living with their parents instead. We are waiting longer to get married and some are even passing on the institution altogether. According to the Census Bureau, the average age of marriage reached its all time low in 1956. The average age for women was 20 and 22 for men, as opposed to 27 and 29 respectively today.
The decision not to get married isn’t just because Millennials like throwing out old traditions and social norms to be contrarian. There are a lot of social and economic factors at play. Wage stagnation, lack of employment opportunities, and high student debt burdens have led many to postpone marriage because they do not feel financially prepared. Others do not feel that marriage is worth their while and society will be just fine if marriage is no longer a priority.
And that can be OK, because the modern reality is alternative housing arrangements also continue to rise, a trend that’s much more interesting than the two checkboxes of living with parents or with a spouse. More Grownups are living alone, managing their own households as single parents, living with roommates, or staying in a college dorm while at school. We don’t seem to fit in neat categories anymore.
Why So Negative?
At face value, this study reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes about Millennials: We’re lazy, narcissistic, and sucking our parents dry. As we dive deeper, though, the study dispels many of those myths. The majority of those living at home aren’t doing so because they’re spoiled brats. Most are facing real economic hardship and much of it isn’t because of choices they have personally made.
So why is the initial reaction so negative? Why do people love to hate Millennials?
When we hear about more young people living at home, it’s not how we feel like things “should” be done. We’ve been told a story that we should work hard in school, get a job, get married, buy a house, and have kids. Failing at any part of this chain of events is sometimes demonized or explained as a lack of hard work or strength of character.
Not only is this version of the American Dream proving to be much more difficult for many Millennials to achieve, others are deciding this isn’t their path in the first place. We usually have negative feelings at first about things we don’t understand, and this is no exception.
It seems as though we are still having trouble shaking the Leave it to Beaver version of a family, the guy with the briefcase version of success, and the idea that you can’t live at home with your parents if you want to call yourself an adult.
Living at Home Comes with Some Serious Perks
There are some big benefits to living with your parents that shouldn’t be overlooked. The ability to save money and pay down debt are the first to come to mind. Beyond getting your own financial footing, adult children living at home can have big benefits to the family as a whole. Young adults living at home can help with household chores, provide care to a family member in need, or pay rent to assist financially.
When we consider the perks of living at home and the broader economic situation of so many young people, we have to ask ourselves: Is this the new normal?
There is some evidence that this trend will continue: The class of 2016 is the most indebted class of undergraduates…since 2015. They will likely hold this title for exactly one year—until the class of 2017 overtakes them. With this kind of overhead, living at home may be the most financially viable option.
In addition to our debt burdens, ideas about marriage aren’t changing much, either. Many are pursuing college education first, then establishing careers before marriage. Some Grownups are just plain gun-shy after seeing their parents divorce. These forces may eventually cause a fundamental shift in our attitudes about those who live at home.
Millennials are the most diverse generation the United States has ever seen. It seems to be a natural balance to see a third of them choosing to live at home, a third marrying or living with a partner, and a third choosing some alternative arrangement.
Let’s Stop the Judgment
It’s not fair (and inaccurate) to paint Millennials with a broad brush and assume we all fit the stereotypes. There are wealthy Millennials living in penthouses in Silicon Valley after selling their successful startup. Others struggle to find work and cover student loan payments and can’t afford a place of their own. And still others fall somewhere in between.
There’s no one-size-fits-all version of what adulthood and independence look like. So rather than judge and criticize Millennials living at home, passing on marriage, or choosing whatever path works for them right now at this moment, we should try to understand and accept them—and address the larger cultural forces at work.
Karen Brady is the founder of Simplie, a financial planning company that offers virtual appointments with CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals. Karen is a former member of the Society of Grownups planning team and is now based in New York City. When she’s not writing about personal finance or meeting with clients, you can find her roaming around NYC looking for the best place to eat.