When a judge forced 30-year-old Michael Rotondo to move out of his parents' house in upstate New York last month, it was the apotheosis of a million trend pieces about young people not having their shit together. As the story goes, millennials are either lazy, entitled narcissists who are obsessed with their phones, or unemployable navel-gazers studying obscure branches of the humanities out of a misguided sense that they are uniquely intelligent. Or both. About a third of them live with their parents, and they're often deemed precious, infantile, and obsessed with nostalgia. But unlike, say, the tale of the 20-year-old British man who had to undergo a humiliating rescue after he got stuck in a child's swing, the Rotondo story was actually pretty damn sad.
Still, the public didn't seem to have much sympathy for the guy, despite the litany of well-documented economic factors that make it tough for some people to leave the nest, like student-loan debt and the insane cost of rent. "There’s nothing inherently discreditable about living with your parents well into adulthood," said Randy Cohen, who ran an ethics column at the New York Times Magazine from 1999 to 2011. "I suppose the anger is the petty resentment of the powerless: If I have to suffer my tiny apartment which I can barely afford because of my crap job, why shouldn’t this jerk?"
Strangely, one of the only prominent voices to take pity on Rotondo was right-wing conspiracy maven Alex Jones, who ranted incoherently to him about globalism, but at least gave him $3,000 as a parting gift. Rotondo's InfoWars appearance was truly funny—he pitched a business idea that was just the word "technology" and appeared to have no idea what was going on the entire time. But while it provided some good quotes and clips, it didn't answer the fundamental question that fueled a lot of interest in his eviction to begin with: At a time when close to 40 percent of millennials are still at home, how old is too old to live with your parents?
There are many, many Reddit threads about this very thing, but there have only been a few remotely scientific surveys that even tangentially touch on Americans' attitudes about the subject. When brokerage company TD Ameritrade interviewed about 2,000 people between the ages of 13 and 26 online last year, they got divergent answers by age group. Young millennials—defined here as people between 20 and 26—said, on average, that 28 was the age at which they'd be embarrassed to still be living with their parents. Teenagers, on the other hand, seemed to skew a little lower, deeming 26 the point of no return. Easy for them to say—both groups tended to answer with an age that was higher than their own.
In many other countries, living with your parents until you're married isn't necessarily embarrassing at all; in Italy, for instance, some 80 percent of 15-to-29-year-olds lived at home, according to a 2016 Organization for Economic Development Report. "At many times and places, younger people did so until they married. An unmarried 30-year-old who set up on his or her own would have been seen as shamefully abandoning her family," Cohen told me.
But in the United States, we've been socialized into thinking our financial attainment is tied to our moral worth, making the way TD Ameritrade formulated its survey question almost reasonable. I moved back home with my parents for the months between college and grad school to save money, and have an acquaintance from college who still lives with her mom and is 29. My sense is that the line is somewhere between those two examples, but decided to ask some experts for clarity on when the whole "adulting" thing means you really need to get your own place or suffer some sort of developmental—not to mention interpersonal—consequences.
Anthony Badillo was laid off from Merrill Lynch during the last economic crisis and retreated to his parents' place in Pennsylvania. Today he's the lead financial planner at a shop called Gen Y Planning, meaning he specifically works with young people, many of whom are seeking his services because they want to move out of their childhood home. "It's hard to mature from that relationship where your parents are the dominant force and you're the child," he told me. "That's a very difficult space to navigate. I have to become a therapist for clients in these situations—to help them navigate it emotionally."
As Badillo tells it, these people tend to fall into three camps: the recently graduated, the recently laid off, and those who want to get a leg up at the beginning of their careers. He instructs all of these folks to get together between three and six months of their net pay, and to push their credit score to 720 or higher. (And if they have no credit, to start by becoming an authorized user on a parents's card, or by getting a pre-paid one.) No matter what job they have, though, he expects clients to take these steps within a specific time frame.
"Basically people graduate when they’re 21 or 22, and I give them a two-to-three-year trajectory," he told me. "But really, I try of keep it down to two. By the time they're in their mid 20s, they should be on their own."
Meanwhile, for Haim Omer, a psychology professor at Tel Aviv University, the question facing all young people comes down less to a number than to whether or not you have a syndrome he calls Adult Entitled Dependence (AED). People who have it, he explained, are not attending school or working but instead demanding money, spending all of their time online, and often switching night with day.
"The question is not how old is too old to stay at the parental home, but what that signifies for the young person's functioning," he told me.
Basically, the idea is that you can live at home as an adult and it can be healthy, or it can be a result of your parents accommodating a dysfunctional mindset. If you actually do have something resembling a career and a mature social existence, then hanging on to a rent-free situation for dear life might not be the worst move—you could be, for instance, in one of the three camps Badillo described.
Omer's currently co-authoring a book that sounds like it would have helped Rotondo's parents: It's about using non-violent resistance to kick lazy offspring out of the house. He said AED is on the rise at least in part due to the mindset that everyone needs to choose a job that's perfectly tailored to them, and parents don't often enough push back on it. But while the online masses blamed Rotondo himself, and Omer seemed to pinpoint the people who coddled him, it's important not to let the individual characters in this story distract from the larger structural forces that got us here.
Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, sees Rotondo and others like him as the product of neoliberal policies designed to make people less dependent on the state and more so on their families. "The vast majority of young adults who live with their immediate family pay rent and are supporting rather than leeching on their family, especially in working-class and working-poor families," he told me. "This case gets a lot of attention, but it's not at all representative. What I'd say to my 9 million fellow millennials is to take a look at average rents over the last few decades. What's happening and why? When you look at the facts, it's impossible to think it's about individual failings."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.