Pew’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data finds that in spite of an improved labor market, “the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds are less likely to be living independently of their families and establishing their own households today than they were in the depths of the Great Recession.”
The unemployment rate for 18- to 34-year-olds has decreased from its 2010 peak, while median weekly earnings for workers in that age group have risen marginally from a 2012 nadir. Yet the share of young adults living independently — that is, “in a household headed by the adult, his or her spouse or unmarried partner, or some other person not related to the adult” — was 67 percent in the first four months of 2015, down from 69 percent in 2010 and 71 percent in 2007. Likewise, 26 percent of young adults were living in a parent’s home in the first third of this year, up from 24 percent in 2010 and 22 percent in 2007.
What gives? Why hasn’t economic recovery freed millennials from their childhood bedrooms?
Kessler gives a few possible answers, including student loan debt, later marriage ages, higher rent, and the influence of helicopter parenting. All quite plausible. We thought we would throw out a few more potential explanations for the mystery of millennials declining to leave the nest. In no particular order, they are:
1. Fewer siblings:
Millennials have fewer brothers and sisters than their parents did. In 1960, the annual U.S. birthrate was 118 children for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to a 2013 Pew report. By 1980, the birthrate had fallen to 68, where it more or less remained until the Great Recession. So while three or four or five-sibling households were common among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, millennials are more likely to be only children or have only one sibling. This probably makes moving home more appealing for many young people and their parents. While parents might be happy to provide food and housing to one adult son or daughter, they would probably be more reluctant to support five at the same time. And while many young adults might be happy to live with their parents temporarily for reasons of cost or convenience, many would probably find it especially stifling to live with their siblings as well.
2. More single parents:
As The Atlantic reported in 2013, “single parents have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960.” This increase is due in large part to higher rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth (although divorce rates have been dropping since the 1990s). It seems plausible that single parents would be more amenable to extra companionship than their married counterparts.
3. Rising ethnic diversity:
The new report does not break down its findings by ethnicity, but a 2010 Pew report found that “Hispanics (22%), blacks (23%) and Asians (25%) are all significantly more likely than whites (13%) to live in a multi-generational family household.” These disparities may be partly economic, but there is clearly a strong cultural component: Asians (who have a higher average income than whites) and Hispanics and blacks (who have lower average incomes than whites) are all far more likely than whites to live in a multi-generational household. Millennials are the most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, with the share of Asians and Hispanics rising especially rapidly. Even if America’s changing ethnic landscape does not directly account for the growing number of millennials living at home, it could have an indirect effect—minority cultural norms are sometimes adopted by the general population.
4. Changing attitudes toward sex:
The New York Times notes that “the dating site Match.com offers tips on maintaining a social life while living at home with an article titled, ‘Dating at Mom and Dad’s House.'” This type of cultural shift is clearly a result of the trend toward living at home—but it might also point to one of the causes. In a more culturally conservative period, parents would have strongly discouraged their children from having sex outside of wedlock. Living at home might have meant forfeiting one’s romantic life. Today, thanks to more permissive sexual norms, that may no longer be the case.
If the factors described above do help explain why millennials are living at home, then an interesting irony is at work. The multi-generational family is in fact a highly traditional social arrangement—in the nineteenth century, older couples frequently lived with their working children. The multi-generational family declined in the twentieth century as the economy modernized, incomes rose, and Americans moved out of rural areas. In the twenty-first century, that very traditional social arrangement may be making a comeback—albeit in a different form—thanks to very non-traditional social trends. Small families, the decline of marriage, sexual permissiveness, and rising ethnic diversity are all products of our modern, technologically advanced, globalized world. And yet it may be precisely these factors that are reproducing a social structure from a much earlier time.