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.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
Kyle Whitfield (center) helps another student at the college newspaper of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., in this 2009 photo. Mr. Whitfield is one who had a difficult time finding a job in the lagging economy. Faced with the same problem, more college grads are opting to live at home.

After graduating from Brown University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and completing a Fulbright scholarship in Brazil, Cassie Owens was left with a few dollars on her stipend and no job in sight. So, Ms. Owens returned home to her mother in Philadelphia.

“I moved back home pretty much for lack of money and prospects,” she says. Owens’s cousin, Evon Burton, who also returned home after graduating from Morehouse College in 2009, adds, “The choice is to go out and be in debt or to pursue your dreams and save up money at home, in a safe, stable environment.”

Owens and Burton are among the scores of so-called “boomerang kids,” young adults who move out of the family home for school or work and then return home. Unable to find well-paying work in a weak economy, escalating numbers of young adults – as many as 3 in 10 – are returning home to the family nest, resulting in the highest share of young adults living in multigenerational households since the 1950s, according to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday.

“The rise in the boomerang phenomenon illustrates the effect the recession and the weak economy are having on young adults,” says Kim Parker, a senior researcher at Pew and the author of the study. “Young adults were hit particularly hard in the job market and are having to delay reaching some basic financial milestones of adulthood because of this.”

In 1980, some 11 percent of young adults lived in multigenerational households, suggesting that a strong economy helped youngsters gain independence more quickly. Today, some 29 percent of 25- to 34-year olds either never moved out of their parents’ home or say they returned home in recent years because of the economy, according to the Pew report. Among 18- to 24-year olds, that figure is even higher – 53 percent of young adults in that age group live at home.

“These statistics show that the recession has exacerbated a trend that was already under way since the 1980s … living at home longer and boomeranging back more frequently,” says Barbara Ray, coauthor of “Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for Everyone.” The recession has hit this age group particularly hard, says Ms. Ray, and high unemployment among young adults, combined with growing college debt, means more youngsters are returning home.

Surprisingly, most “boomerang kids” don’t mind living with mom and dad. If ever there were a stigma about living with parents through one's late twenties and thirties, the recession and, along with it, a practical dollars-and-cents outlook on life have all but erased that perception.

Of those living at home, some 78 percent say they’re upbeat about their living arrangements, according to the Pew study, and 24 percent say it’s been good for their relationships with their parents (48 percent say it hasn’t changed their relationship).

Owens says she’s happy to have an opportunity to look after her mother, who isn’t in good health.

“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.

“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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