Young Americans living at home hits 1940 levels. Why that may be a good thing

Nearly 40 percent of young people ages 18-34 lived with family in 2015, the highest percentage since 1940. The trend reflects economic pressures, but may also be a sign of increased opportunity and independence for some. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The Perthel family eat out at a sushi restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, on Oct. 7, 2015.

Nearly 40 percent of American Millennials lived at home with a parent, sibling, or other relative in 2015, a recent analysis has found, marking the highest percentage in 75 years. 

According to an analysis of US census data by real estate tracker Trulia, 2015 saw the largest share of 18- to 34-year-olds opting to live with family since 1940, a year after the official end of the Great Depression. The record numbers are a continuation of a decade-long trend that began in the mid-2000s and shows no signs of reversing, despite a rebounding economy and recent job growth. 

There are a number of economic factors thought to be keeping large swaths of Millennials from striking out on their own, including rising rents, flat or falling wages, the growth of student debt, and the struggle that less-educated young people in particular face in finding jobs that pay enough to support an independent lifestyle.

But there are also cultural shifts – and potential societal benefits – at play, sociologists say, including an increase in the number of young adults pursuing higher education and a rising average age for first-time marriages. And, as it becomes increasingly common for twenty-somethings to return to their childhood homes, stigmas that may have motivated them to move out as quickly as possible in past decades are slowly disappearing. 

"Economic pressures are closely related to delayed household formation, but the trend toward later marriage and more education has been going on for decades, largely driven by the increased opportunities and independence for women," says Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "So what looks like prolonged adolescence and disengaged couch-surfing is also a story of increased opportunity and independence for some people in the long run." 

An increase in the number of women attending college and earning advanced degrees has resulted in many choosing to delay marriage until they can enter the union "on more equal footing, rather than dependent on a husband," Professor Cohen tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. The average age at which both men and women marry has been creeping steadily upward for years, as Stephanie Hanes noted in a Monitor cover story on the rise of singles culture in America last year. In 1960, women tended to get married at 20, and men at 22. Today, the average age to get hitched is 27 for women and 29 for men. 

"We've simply got a lot more singles," Richard Fry, a senior economist at the Pew Research Center, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "They're the group much more likely to live with their parents." 

While the rise in young people living at home correlates with an increase in opportunities for women, it may represent a different kind of economic trend for men, as Josh Kenworthy reported for the Monitor in May: 

For men, living with parents reflects that they are doing relatively worse in the job market than they used to. Overall, employment among age 18-to-34 men has been falling since it peaked in 1960 at 84 percent. In 2014, only 71 percent had jobs. And adjusted for inflation, their wages also been eroding since 1970 and fell significantly during the 2000 to 2010 period.

Similarly, Cohen notes, while more young people of all education levels are opting to stay at home, the nuances of what's driving the trend also reflect greater inequality between Millennials belonging to different socioeconomic classes. 

"Today's young adults are split between those who have worse opportunities, who may stay home because they can't afford to strike out on their own, and those who have better opportunities, who may stay home while they pursue higher education and start their careers," he says.

Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, attributes the start of the trend in the mid-2000s to economic pressures, accentuated by the recession. 

But in the years since, he says, the economic realities that forced many young people to move in with their parents have resulted in a "substantial" societal change in attitude, reducing the cultural pressures that may have motivated young people in decades past to move out as quickly as possible. 

"I think that parents are more accepting of their children needing to live at home, and young adults themselves feel less compromised by residing by their parents, in part because it’s become more common and more acceptable," Professor Furstenberg says. "There’s a kind of cyclical process by which change occurs, both in behavior and attitude."

As perhaps both a cause and effect of this shift, young people today tend to have closer relationships with their parents than in decades past, Furstenberg tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

"In the not-so-distant past, young adults did what they could to ... get out of the home as soon as possible and try to create some distance between their parents and themselves," he says. "The period of the late teens or early twenties was a time of greater autonomy for young adults. Today, it's a time of greater family harmony."

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