A few years ago I was getting a ride home from a party with a guy in his early twenties. I lived in a gentrified neighborhood I could no longer pretend to afford, and he lived, it emerged, with his parents. “Good for you,” I said. “I think that’s great.”
We hit a stoplight and he turned to look at me. “Do you?” he asked, with a sudden edge of cynicism in his voice. “Do you really?” I could hear what he was thinking: I guess you’re trying to be nice or whatever, but nobody thinks it’s “great” when a guy—who should be a man—lives with Mommy and Daddy. One of us was making a foolish choice that was destroying her savings, but the more frugal one bore the weight of societal stigma.
The proportion of young adults (aged 18 to 31) who live with one or both parents stayed basically the same between 1968, the earliest year for which we have data, and 2007. What proportion was normal for those four decades? About a third, 32 percent. A recent Pew Research report found that in 2012 that number had risen to 36 percent, a noticeable increase but not necessarily a sign of social crisis—especially not when you consider that college students living in dorms are still counted as “living with their parents,” and college enrollment has been rising since 2007 as well. More men than women live with Mom and/or Dad, which might seem like an effect of the ongoing “mancession”—in which men’s labor-force participation has plummeted—but men have been more likely to live with their parents as adults since at least 1968, partly because men typically marry later than women. In fact, the gender gap was greater in 1968 than today.
Americans believe that adults who live with their parents have “failed to launch”; man-boys spend their days playing World of Warcraft while Mom does their laundry. This narrative is persuasive in part because many of the trends driving the increase in “returning to the nest” are bad, so returning is correlated with bad things, like unemployment and underemployment. If you see an unemployed young adult living with his parents, maybe he’s living with them because he’s unemployed—or maybe his unemployment and his living situation have a common cause, which is that he’s an immature loser.
And living with your parents can make it harder to grow up. There’s less pressure to take responsibility for yourself, and pressure often forces us past what we believe to be our limitations. A 2008 study interviewing young adults who lived at home found that few contributed financially to the household or did chores. One young woman explained, “I was excited to have my mother to cook for me, and always having a full refrigerator.”
These attitudes are by no means universal (and the study itself wasn’t intended to be representative), as some young adults paid rent and utilities even against their parents’ wishes. And part of the problem in stigmatizing “returning to the nest” is that the category lumps together a huge range of circumstances. A 2011 study found that older “parental co-residers” (those who live with their parents after age 27) were likelier to be disabled, and so were their parents; the parents were also more likely to be single—never married, divorced, or widowed. This paints a different picture, of families with limited resources banding together to get through tough times.
Given the powerful trends of rising part-time work and job instability, rising university attendance, and delayed or disappearing marriage, I don’t think there’s much reason to believe that the modest rise in living at home is the result of some sudden onslaught of millennial laziness or unwillingness to start at the bottom of the career ladder.
In fact, starting your adult life in your parents’ home was not historically stigmatized, precisely because it offered young adults an oasis of stability in a chaotic economy. The economic journalist Megan McArdle writes,
My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary—and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off.
Two huge differences between the Depression era and today leap out from McArdle’s account. One is the sense that what her grandparents did was normal, not shameful. But the other is that they did it as young marrieds. This is perhaps the biggest negative effect of living at home these days: It postpones marriage and, in many cases, childbearing. Today, young adults believe that they can’t get married—that it’s wrong to get married—before they’ve achieved economic independence. For reasons that can be crudely summarized as “terror of divorce,” young adults believe that it’s only morally acceptable to get married once you’ve undergone an extensive period of finding yourself and attaining financial stability.
The belief that young adults must be able to live independently before they can marry is new, and it’s damaging. At the pregnancy center where I volunteer, about half of the women intend to marry their children’s father eventually. What are they waiting for? A steady job, an escape from welfare and charity, a sense of financial solid ground. But if a woman names one specific goal she must attain before she can marry, 9 times out of 10 that goal is an apartment of her own: moving out from under Mom’s roof. So she puts her name on the years-long waiting list for Section 8 subsidized housing, and she applies for yet another part-time job, and she goes back to community college, and she hopes that her relationship with her baby’s father will survive. Without marriage, it usually doesn’t.
Almost every form of dependence is stigmatized in America’s individualist culture. This particular form of dependence has also been redefined to be as individualist as possible (you can’t marry and you’re not expected to care for your parents) and then shamed both for its dependence and for its narcissism. But the stigma hasn’t worked. Everybody doing it feels it to be shameful, yet the shame has not made us do it less. Expecting and then honoring mutual dependence might be a better option.
Shortly after that awkward car ride, I finally left my fancified neighborhood. I was older than most “boomerang kids,” but like many of them I was single and dealing with personal problems—I’d gotten sober a few months earlier and desperately wanted a break from the surroundings in which I’d done my worst drinking—and I fled back home seeking both financial and emotional relief. I paid no rent and did exactly one chore, cleaning the catbox, so I am the problem. But I also exemplified “returning to the nest” as a useful adaptive strategy: Six months later I moved out, much improved in both spirit and bank account. This is one way the boomerang story ends well. But it would be an equally happy ending, although more radically challenging to American norms of independence, if I had remained at home and begun to make real household contributions of money and care.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.