How much do millennials love their parents? Do snake people enjoy basements?
These are not questions that a new Pew Research Center report seeks to answer. But it may shed some light on them nonetheless. 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?
Student debt has probably played a role. But the decline in independent living stretched across 25- to 34-year-old cohorts with varying degrees of educational attainment, including those who didn't attend college. Thus Pew concluded "that additional factors beyond education debt are impacting the decisions to co-reside with family."
The job-market recovery has been more kind to young people with bachelor's degrees, suggesting "that trends in young adult living arrangements are not being driven by labor market fortunes." It's possible, however, that millennials are caught in a pincer, with the more educated among them stymied by student debt and the less educated by a weaker labor-market recovery. Young people are also getting married later.
Moreover, the labor market still has not fully recuperated. The unemployment rate for 18- to 34-year-olds was 7.7 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with 6.2 percent in 2007, according to the report. Young adult workers' median weekly earnings (adjusted for inflation) are just slightly lower than they were in 2008. In addition, rents have increased. "I think the economy hasn't improved long enough to have young people feel confident that they can both get a job and then provide their own living arrangements," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "If we're here four or five years from now and we see the same pattern, then I'll be more willing to say that this is a long-term situation."
It's also possible that the impetus to live with family isn't entirely economic. "My suspicion is that both young adult and parental attitudes have changed as far as the social acceptability and desirability of young adults living with their parents," Richard Fry, the author of the Pew report, explained by e-mail. Fry said he doesn't have data to confirm his hunch, but he surmises that helicopter parents "have grown more accepting of their adult children living with them." Likewise, young adults' feelings about shacking up with mom and dad may have transformed: "There simply may not be any stigma associated with it," Fry said.
Writing for the Washington Post last summer, Oregon State University professor Richard Settersten argued that talk of a crisis is overblown: "What hard economic times have done is offer a culturally acceptable explanation for young people and their parents to rationalize their circumstances in the face of a cherished American ideal of independence that triggers embarrassment or shame."
Maybe millennials just like their parents. Or the basement.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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