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Three in 10 young adults live with parents, highest level since 1950s

A weak economy and high debt levels are prompting more young adults to return to the family nest, a new survey shows. Perhaps surprisingly, most are happy with their living arrangements.

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“My parents love it and if they could keep me here forever they would,” says Erika Brunner, who moved back home to Lafayette, N.Y., in 2010 after completing her bachelor’s degree, working, and traveling in Europe for five months.

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“There are some very positive aspects of this shift,” says Ray, “[like] closer parent-child relationships, for example, or a growing sense of intergenerational obligation.”

What’s more, says Parker, the trend of young adults returning home, and with it, the increasing number of multigenerational households in the US, suggest family is once again becoming an important social safety net. 

“Census data suggest that if it can keep you out of poverty, it is in essence a sort of social safety net,” she says, citing Pew findings that young adults who live in multigenerational homes are less likely to live in poverty than those who don’t. Given an aging population and entitlement programs threatened due to a budget crunch, “it seems like family has to step in and fill a void,” says Parker. “That’s what we’re seeing here.”

But in many cases, it also means young adults are caught in a murky phase between adolescence and adulthood.

“The recession has really accelerated trends of prolonging adolescence and shifting adulthood later. If you can’t find a job, it’s difficult to establish yourself,” says Parker.

In fact, as many as 3 in 10 young adults postponed marriage, starting a family, or both, due to the economy, according to the Pew report. Another third have returned to school and untold numbers have settled for a job simply to make ends meet.

“But in spite of the trials and tribulations this generation is facing, they are extremely optimistic about the future,” says Parker.

Take Owens. Because well-paying jobs are hard to come by, she says, “a lot of people are going where their heart is and trying to have a good experience. In the past, they would have been content settling for a [traditional job]. Now no one’s willing to make pennies at a job they hate, so a lot of people are pursuing the stuff they really love.”

In Owens’s case, that’s journalism and music, which the 24-year-old is exploring with internships at Philadelphia’s CITY newspaper and at R&B Records, a mecca for audiophiles, which stocks one of the country’s largest collections of 45s. Owens says she’s been “blown away” by the experience and is planning to return to graduate school soon for a master’s degree in journalism.

But as Mr. Burton and Ms. Brunner – each of whom juggles three or more part-time jobs or internships – point out, the situation for many young adults is far from ideal. “I don’t think I'd be working 3.5 part-time jobs if I nailed down one that paid well enough and was something I really enjoyed,” says Brunner.

In that, Ray sees a worrisome trend in the boomerang generation.

“If the ‘launch’ feels blocked for too long, will this generation's optimism curdle into bitterness and skepticism?” she asks, in an e-mail. “Will a ding to their wages at an important juncture haunt them for years? Will a generation that has been told they can be and do anything – without many challenges as of yet – be resilient enough to withstand this setback?” she says. “Only time will tell.”

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