Last weekend I chatted with Laura, a vibrant thirtysomething who holds a high-flying job in San Francisco. She normally lives in a cool apartment in a trendy district of that city.
No longer. This summer she decamped to her parents’ house on the East Coast with her boyfriend, initially to mitigate the challenges of the Covid-19 lockdown — and now to avoid California’s wildfires.
“I thought it would be a few weeks,” she said with a rueful smile. “But it keeps being extended.”
Many other millennials and some of the older of the Gen Z cohort might have a similar tale, particularly those who are younger than Laura. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a survey which showed that the proportion of “young adults” (aged 18-29) in the US living with their parents is now 52 per cent, up from 46 per cent at the start of the year.
“Before 2020, the highest measured value was in the 1940 census at the end of the Great Depression, when 48 per cent of young adults lived with their parents,” the Pew report observed. “The peak may have been higher during the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but there is no data for that period.”
The current surge partly reflects the pandemic: numerous students and professionals have, like Laura, returned home. But what is really interesting is that when you take a longer-term look, coronavirus does not explain everything.
The proportion of young adults living with their parents in America fell sharply after the second world war — down to 29 per cent by the early 1960s. That was an era when the combination of rapid economic growth, reforms such as the GI Bill (giving wider access to higher education), a building boom and an earlier marrying age prompted young adults to set up their own homes. The number rose only slightly above 30 per cent for the next two decades.
Fast forward to the early years of the 21st century, however, and the figure had jumped above 40 per cent. It has been climbing ever since. The chief cause is economic stress: young people who are laden with student debt and/or finding it hard to get a 1950s-style secure job are being forced back home.
And while the pattern is more pronounced among Hispanic and African-American people, in the past year the biggest rise has been among young white adults.
Joint living is an emotive issue. It has advantages: for one thing, it can counter loneliness — and, as the economist Noreena Hertz notes in her new book, The Lonely Century, the issue of social isolation is a big problem in our digital age.
Reinforcing extended family networks helps young parents with another problem: the hellish work-childcare juggle. Indra Nooyi, the Indian-American former chief executive of PepsiCo, says that one reason she was able to build her career so successfully was that she lived in an extended family structure and had people to care for her children.
She thinks more families in the west should copy this if we want to level the gender playing field at work.
However, enforced communal living has big downsides too — and not just for the generation of middle-aged parents who have had their plans for peaceful retirement disrupted.
Surveys have shown that Covid-19 has caused a sharp rise in mental-health issues: a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11 per cent of people in the US had contemplated suicide during the June spent under lockdown (up from 4.3 per cent in 2018). Among those aged 18-24 it was 26 per cent.
While it would be nice to think — or hope — that joint living arrangements can mitigate this, psychologists have reported that the experience of being trapped back in the parental nest has sometimes made these mental-health problems far worse for young people. On a less extreme basis, it can contribute to apathy.
Good or bad, it is fascinating to ponder how this might shape behaviour in the future. Perhaps it will make the younger generation more willing to embrace risk — either in reaction to their frustration at this confinement or in the knowledge that they have a safety net.
But it is also possible that it will create a more infantilised and passive mentality, with debilitating impacts — a far cry from the mood after the second world war, when a new feeling of independence and confidence among the younger generation boosted economic growth and prompted a sharp rise in household formation.
Either way, perhaps the most important point is this: based on their experiences in the latter half of the 20th century, the older generation’s ideas of what a “normal” family structure or life cycle in America is are set in stone. But there is nothing inevitable or normal about our current situation.
While the trends triggered by Covid-19 might turn out to be temporary, we cannot bet on this being the case — or expect a return to the 1960s pattern. Just don’t point this out to the stressed-out millennials (and their parents) who are chafing at the new co-living.
As Laura said: “I love my parents but can’t wait to get back to my own place. I don’t want to think this might go on — and on.”
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