When Pew Research Center announced last fall 52 percent of young adults in the United States were living in their parents’ homes, social scientists took notice. This percentage was an all-time high, surpassing the 48 percent previous high which occurred at the end of the Great Depression.
Put in raw numbers, this meant 26.6 million young adults — ages 18-29 — were sharing close quarters with immediate family members. You didn’t have to be a psychologist to understand this was a potentially combustible mix. What were the causal agents that produced this phenomenon?
Naturally, it was assumed that the return to roots was another whiplash consequence of Covid-19. With college campuses shut-downs and widespread job loss, many had no other viable option except to turn to their parents. Or, were there other factors involved?
The Wu Han virus has long and powerful tentacles. It has killed millions and hundreds of other millions have suffered less direct hits. It certainly is capable of denying a generation around the world the conventional transition from childhood to adult independence.
Today, eight months after the Pew findings, the cruel Covid-19 grip is easing in the United States. Are these Gen Zers and Millennials moving out of their parents’ homes and resuming their lives in more typical ways?
It’s far too early to draw accurate conclusions, but preliminary information is available.
Daniel McCue, senior researcher for the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, recently cited the monthly Current Population Survey from the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics: data from the survey, McCue said, indicated “the higher prevalence of living with parents…at the end of 2020 was almost entirely university students…not young adults in the labor force.” Many of those students moved out of the family home in short order after the report.
McCue, however, underscored that the survey was “affected to an unknown degree by the pandemic in 2020,” so additional data was needed to make educated interpretations.
These additional statistics are important because scientists need to tease out the Covid-19 influence from the “shared living” experience all have suffered since the virus first penetrated the country. It’s critical to understand what differentiates a temporary byproduct of the virus from a permanent condition.
The trend of young adults returning to the home front is a good example. For the last forty years, this behavior has been on an uptick: returnees have been labeled the “boomerang generation” because they leave home and then boomerang back. Covid-19 exacerbated the situation, but the trend was in place long before the world heard of Wu Han.
Various hypotheses have been advanced about the boomerang trend: economic constraints and increasing graduate level studies are among the more popular theories that have been put forth.
Perhaps the answer is more complicated. Perhaps we as a society are undergoing an identity sea change that is manifestly significant.
Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. thinks so. He has been studying these matters since 1995 and believes that industrial societies have produced a step in growth between adolescence and adulthood which he calls “emerging adulthood.”
It is a transition period characterized by change and exploration. Prior to making enduring life choices, these young people explore possibilities in terms of relationships, career choices, and worldviews. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life when a lot of important turning points are reached,” Arnett declares. These turning points are no longer limited by marriage, children or job related concerns.
During this step, the young people may choose to live at home. Arnett points out: “Emerging adults sometimes rely on their parents as a source of support, but they have a great deal of autonomy in the household.”
Is this one of the reasons for the boomerangers? “You put those things together and you have more people either remaining home or moving back home than was true 40 or 50 years ago,” Arnett concludes.
These are intriguing ideas which merit more research. Why young adults are returning to their parents’ homes is an issue which demands our attention.