Recent statistics from the Pew Research Center say we millennials have reached a demographic threshold Western society has not seen in more than 130 years: Your average American 18- to 34-year-old is more likely to be living with their parents than with a romantic partner.
While it's tempting to read the shift as an indicator of how millennials dealt with the economic recession of 2008—and as a continuation of the "Why can't 20-somethings grow up?" articles that followed—the statistics don't mean we are total losers with no jobs, motivation, or adventurous spirit, the Pew researchers say. As the popularity of living alone or with roommates has slowly chipped away at the percentage of people living with a spouse or lover, the demographic shift is largely the result of a "dramatic" decrease in the number of people who choose to "settle down" before they turn 35—not our failure to assimilate into adulthood.
It's also not super surprising, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University who has been studying the 18–30 life stage—what he calls "emerging adulthood"—for 25 years. "It's finally passed this threshold where more people are living with their parents than with a partner," Arnett told me over the phone. "It's a consequence of other trends that have been going on for decades." These trends include the rise of marriage age (according to another Pew study, in 2014 the median age at first marriage was 27 for women and 29 for men); a steady decline of manufacturing jobs, which mean young men with little education have a harder time making money; the trend towards spending a longer time in education; and the rising number of Hispanic people—who are more likely to live with their parents, according to Pew—in the population.
The feminist revolution has also played a role. "Certainly another thing that's happened over the last 50 years is that women have gone into higher education in huge numbers," Arnett said. "They're not just looking to find a husband anymore; they have career goals of their own."
Indeed, in her new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister outlines how the changing "sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women" have created the conditions for single women to basically conquer the world from their tastefully decorated studio apartments. Even Traister herself counted herself as part of the single ladies' revolution—just because she got married when she was in her mid 30s.
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Traister's argument was basically that once women didn't need to get married, we were able to accomplish a lot more. But according to Arnett, marriage remains the organizing force of our society—like Traister, most millennials are just putting it off, not disposing of it all together.
"I find that by their late 20s, almost all young women and young men alike are ready [to get married] if they can find the right partner," Arnett said. "In my book, Emerging Adulthood, I talk about what I call the 'age 30 deadline.' When you ask single people in their 20s when they want to get married, that age comes up over and over again." You have your 20s to figure out your career, your sexual resume, your preferred city of residence, and your general thing.
After that, people get tired. (Last year, Traister wrote an article for Elle called "30 Was the Year I Vowed to Start Living Like an Adult.") "Changing residences really peaks in your 20s, for all sorts of reasons," Arnett said. "It's hard to characterize because [20-somethings are] all over the place, changing residences a lot because they're also changing educational direction and changing jobs. It's a very complex and chaotic decade."
As a result, Arnett doesn't believe these shifting demographic trends will affect older people's living situations. "I think that the demise of marriage is greatly overstated. Almost everybody still wants to get married," he said, to my wide eyes. "Almost everybody still does get married, and still wants to get married. The sort of standard setup of adult life, where you have a partner and you have a child—that's still the destination for most people; it's what they want. People move around a lot in their 20s because they're pursuing opportunities, but nobody wants to continue that nomadic, unstable way of life for their entire lifetime."
In the meantime, mom's house is actually a pretty decent deal. Arnett says most parents actually don't care if their 28-year-old son is still dining on mom's meatloaf every night.
"What I think is really important here is that relationships between parents and their emerging adults are harmonious for the most part," Arnett said. "We have this idiotic cultural stereotype of parents slapping their heads, [saying], 'Oh, my kid, I can't get rid of him, why won't he move out?' That's not how it is at all! The parents are generally really happy to have their kids around. The baby boomers set out from the beginning to be closer to their kids than they were to their parents. It's never quite like a friendship—you have to pull rank occasionally with your [kids]—but it's really striking how positive emerging adults and their parents talk about their relationships."