The Pew Research Center has just released a report titled, “More Millennials Living With Family Despite Improved Job Market.” It describes a small shift in the share of 18 to 34-year-old Americans who live with their parents or other relatives. By comparing 2007 to 2015, Pew sets a baseline before the recession and then observes the effect of several years of recovery.
They find that as the recession ended and the economy recovered, millennials did not move out on their own. The number of millennials living with parents has increased by 3 million, owing to the swelling number of people in that age group. But the number and share of millennials living independently has been flat since 2007.During the recession, it was assumed that maybe young people couldn’t find profitable work. After several years of growth, they still haven’t moved into their own places.
The Pew Research Center does nice work, and this is a trustworthy report. (I say that as one of the few people who reads the methodology section before I read the introduction. ) Pew hasn’t attempted to explain the trend — only to prove it.
There is an assumption that young people should set up their own households as soon as they can, and that they should want to do that. If the rate of independent living among the young falters, then some people suppose either the economy is preventing them from doing what they want, or there is something wrong with them. Internet commenters tend toward the “something wrong with them” explanation:
“My experience is that Millennials living with Mom and Dad are doing so not out of deep devotion to the family unit and a desire to contribute to their home, but out of economic necessity…or sheer laziness. (It’s easier to have Mom do you cooking, cleaning and laundry.) It is ludicrous to compare today’s dependent children to productive young adults who remained at home in previous generations so they could help with the chores, contribute economically and maybe even take on duties that elderly parents preferred to delegate to them.”
Cue Eddie Cochrane, whose 1958 hit Summertime Blues was probably playing on that old fogie’s radio when he was young:
A-well my mom and pop a-told me
Son you gotta make some money
A-if you wanna use the car
To go a-ridin’ next Sunday
A-well I didn’t go to work
Told the boss I was sick
“Now you can’t use the car
Cause you didn’t work a lick”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues
“Productive young adults who remained at home in previous generations,” indeed!
The Bloomberg View has posted a nice sidebar to the Pew report that offers, if not an explanation, at least a bit of perspective. Bloomberg says, Millennials Didn’t Invent Living With the ‘Rents. Instead, multi-generational households has been the American norm except for the post-WWII generation.
It’s true that in the mid-20th century, the nuclear family was typical. While a small fraction of the population lived in multigenerational households, most adults maintained their distance from aging parents. The housing of postwar suburbs embodied this ideal, and mid-century experts on family life preached the virtues of a sharp, clean break between generations.
In the process, the idea of adult children living with their parents — or vice versa — came to be seen as something pathological. This consensus proved so powerful that historians of the family bought into it. Many scholars published research in the 1960s and 1970s purporting to show that Americans had always lived in nuclear families, with generations keeping each other at other at arm’s length. But recent research has revealed a far more complicated picture — one that should be reassuring to millennials and their parents alike.
Here’s an example from my own family. The following image is a clip from the 1940 US Census for households in Wells County, Indiana. My grandfather Gerald was 29 years old. He and his 25-year-old wife, Fay, were living with his parents. Five-year-old Jack is my father.
The 1940 Census was a lot different than nowadays. The screen grab shows names in the first column (beginning with Lyman Zehner), and then relationship to the head of household. According to the coding system, my dad and uncle were 4s and my grandmother was only a 5 because she was a daughter-in-law. The next columns show gender, race, age and marital status. The final two column are about education: how much schooling has the person completed? Lyman and Daisy both had 7 years; Gerald and Fay only 4 years. On a portion not shown, the Census asks about employment, specifically if the person is doing “emergency” work — meaning working for the federal WPA or CCC or any of the other Roosevelt-era jobs programs. Lyman and Gerald are both listed as self-employed farmers.
My dad’s parents got off to a tough start. They were married during the Depression, and then came the war. The whole window of time when people supposedly set up their own household was obscured for them by crisis and emergency. (My mother’s parents were older and they already owned land when the crisis began. They did well though the Depression, and would have done well during the war if three of their sons hadn’t gone to be in it.)
Dad’s parents eventually took over the Zehner farm from Lyman, but they never “launched” in the contemporary sense. They sent my dad to college, but when Gerald died my dad had to come back to the farm. Fay died before I was born, a very old woman of 42, and the only thing I know about her is that my mother said she had a habit of wringing her hands.
People commonly suppose that the decisions they make and the values they hold are the normal. But that often is not the case. Bloomberg has shown that, either by desire or necessity, most Americans have historically shared households across generations. Only the post-war generation — stoked by extraordinary American affluence and exuberance — assumed that separate living was within everyone’s grasp and was everyone’s desire. Back to Bloomberg:
[I]f this turns into a trend, a bit less hysteria and a deeper appreciation of the history of multigenerational households might be helpful. Today’s millennials may be embracing family arrangements that were once the norm, not the exception. The helicopter parents, the adult children who prove reluctant to leave home — perhaps we’ve been here already.
The Census data, by the way, is all on line and searchable. The scan of my family’s page is here. If you are interested you can search by location (state, country, city, street).