The share of adult children who live with their parents has ticked up in recent years. This just in: The parents don’t like it.
With the economy sputtering, a spate of new articles counsel parents on such lightning-rod topics as whether adult children should pay rent and, more bluntly, “How to Get Your Grown Children to Move Out.”
COVID-19 sent adult children back to the nest in unprecedented numbers. A stampede of younger millennials and older Generation Z progeny have fled roommates and cramped urban apartments during the pandemic for spacious homes in thinly settled suburbs with full kitchens and convenient laundry facilities.
The share of adults ages 25 to 34 who lived with their parents reached historic highs in 2020, Census figures show: 22 percent of men and 13.4 percent of women.
The numbers have retreated since then, but not far. In 2022, 19 percent of men and 12 percent of women in the 25-34 demographic cohabit with their parents.
“We talk in psychology about emerging adulthood as a new stage in life,” said Carol Sigelman, a developmental psychologist at the George Washington University. “It’s this sort of in-between land.”
A grown child with a good job can maximize the benefits of living at home, amassing savings and retiring debts while paying little or nothing for food and shelter.
Returning to a childhood home can also trigger a waking nightmare of rehashed arguments, violated boundaries and unattainable privacy, not to mention the inescapable sense of being treated like a child.
“Multigenerational households really are very productive and useful,” said Jerrold Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. “But there are some issues. The biggest one is, as soon as kids get back with their parents, no matter how old they are, they regress. And the parents regress. They do it in tandem.”
Returning from college to the twin bed and One Direction posters of a childhood bedroom is a well-established, if vaguely humiliating, rite of passage for America’s young adults. More than half of men and women ages 18-24 have lived with their parents consistently since 2011, Census numbers show.
They sit at the vanguard of a decades-long trend, spotlighted by the pandemic, that has transformed the American household.
In the first four decades of the 1900s, long before the term “failure to launch” entered the cultural vocabulary, more than two-fifths of adults under 30 lived with their parents in multigenerational households, often sharing chores on a family farm, according to a Pew analysis of Census files. The share of young adults living with their folks peaked at 48 percent in 1940.
The cohabiting population plummeted in the 1940s and 1950s, an era of war, prosperity and urbanization, bottoming out around 30 percent in 1960. It has risen slowly ever since.
Young adults are staying in school longer, coping with rising student debt, marrying later and waiting longer to buy a first home. Many move out of the parental home only to return after losing a job or a roommate. Researchers call them boomerang kids.
COVID-19 sparked a mass relocation, with millions of Americans leaving crowded urban cores and shuttered college campuses. A Pew survey found that young adults were three times as likely to move as any other age group.
In the first half of 2020, the pandemic pushed the share of under-30 adults living with their parents from 47 percent to 52 percent, a slim majority.
A raft of stories romanticized the new connections forged between grown children and the parents who thought they’d lost them forever.
Over time, some of the societal goodwill has soured. The boomerang child has spawned a cottage industry of coverage about coping, not with the pandemic, but with the young pandemic refugees still colonizing your home.
One article enumerates “8 mistakes parents make when their 20-something kids move back in.” (Number four is, “Assuming they’ll move out when they’re ready.” Number seven: “Letting them wait for the perfect job.”)
Another headline announces, “Working parents spend more than $1,000 per month on adult kids’ bills.” That piece discusses a recent survey by the consumer website Savings.com. Among the findings: 62 percent of adult children living with parents “don’t contribute at all to the household expenses.”
A third entry warns, “Supporting Adult Kids May Cost Parents $227K in Retirement.” One disturbing takeaway: 10 percent of adult children still collect an allowance.
“Living at home, saving money, paying back college debt, that sounds okay to me,” said Jim Kinney, a certified financial planner in New Jersey. “But what I’ve been seeing recently is more of this failure-to-launch thing. The kid’s living at home because he doesn’t want to go out and get a job.”
Aging parents who support adult children risk shortchanging their own retirement plans, Kinney said.
“In the real world, the glory years of when people really pour money into their retirement is the last 10 years” of their working lives, he said. “And if you’re supporting your kid by paying his car insurance and paying for his groceries and maybe even paying for his medical insurance, that takes the opportunity away to pile on the retirement savings in the final years before retirement.”
Kinney believes most adult children who live with parents should pay at least some rent. “If they’re a little too comfortable at home,” he said, “maybe you need to make it a little uncomfortable.”
Ideally, parents should work out an arrangement with boomerang children before they move back, laying out what funds or chores the child will contribute and what boundaries the parents will honor, according to Shapiro. “It’s like a prenup,” he said.
Even then, relations can deteriorate.
Shapiro, an expert on empty-nest parents, once counseled a couple whose daughter had agreed to pay rent when she returned to the family home. “And she did,” Shapiro said. “For about three months. And she stayed there for a year and a half. And it created a real problem.”
When a multigenerational household prospers, the arrangement can pay rich dividends both for parents and their adult children. Parents thrive, after all, on seeing their children go out into the world and perpetuate the species, a concept known in psychological circles as “generativity.”
“Most parents are really quite good at this,” Sigelman said. “They’re still parents. They want to help their children any way they can.”
All parents really ask in return, she said, is to “see the adult child is trying to make some kind of progress. They’re in school, working on a degree. They’re looking for jobs. They’re making a plan for leaving.”