As the economy improves and the job market recovers, experts anticipated that boomerang millennials would move out of their old bedrooms and start living on their own. But that prediction has not become a reality: The country’s 18- to 34-year-olds are less likely to be living independently today than they were in the depths of the Great Recession.
A new demographic analysis by the Pew Research Center found that while the population of millennials has increased by 3 million since the recession, the number living on their own has decreased, from 69 percent to 67 percent. Education plays a role in who leaves the nest and who doesn’t: 86 percent of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds lived independently, as compared with 75 percent of the same age group with a high school education.
Those millions still at home are more than just an annoyance for their parents. The Pew Report noted: “This may have important consequences for the nation’s housing market recovery, as the growing young adult population has not fueled demand for housing units and the furnishings, telecom and cable installations, and other ancillary purchases that accompany newly formed households.”
So what’s going on here? New York University sociologist Richard Arum and his University of Virginia colleague Josipa Roksa surveyed the same cohort of 1,000 young adults through college and after graduation. Their research has been published in two books, the most recent being Aspiring Adults Adrift.
Arum was not surprised by the Pew findings, explaining that while the recession certainly had an economic impact on millennials, other “cultural factors” are at work. Young adults are taking their time — Arum calls it “meandering” — through college and career exploration. “It’s not considered a stigma anymore among the middle class to live at home,” he says.
That take-your-time attitude is fostered by universities, Arum argues. While colleges provide — at a price — impressive social amenities and support services, they often pay little attention to academic progress.
“Instead of challenging students with a structured environment that requires effort and engagement, colleges do the opposite,” he says. “Often little is required and students are not held accountable for lack of academic engagement.” His study found many students who graduated with a B average admitted to studying fewer than five hours a week. “These students are being sold a bill of goods about what adult success requires. Five hours a week? That doesn’t cut it when it comes to work and family. These things take effort.”
As a result, new graduates are often adrift when it comes to devising a game plan for personal and professional lives. More than half of recent grads admitted that their lives lacked direction, Arum’s survey found. The lack of initiative extends beyond career planning to little civil engagement or interest in news and public affairs.
So how do these meandering adults find a sense of direction? Arum believes that for many of them, it will come at a price, meaning more graduate and professional education. The numbers bear him out: Almost 30 percent of college grads go back to school, a number that has quadrupled from the 1960s, he says.
And it’s that parental “safety net” of living at home and other financial support that allow many millennials to take their time becoming adults. Those Pew numbers will likely remain unchanged. “The life course is being stretched and everything takes longer, including becoming an adult. This is going to be the reality,” Arum says.
Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.
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