Children’s stories all end up the same way, with young people riding off into the sunset with their romantic partners.
It may come as some surprise to today’s children to learn that Sleeping Beauty is more likely to end up living with her parents than in that rosy scenario with Prince Charming. The Pew Foundation recently reported that for the first time in more than 100 years, young adults aged 18 to 34 in the U.S. are more likely to reside with their parents than with a romantic partner.
Though this situation is new, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Clearly the economy plays a role. In 1960, when it was easy for young adults to get jobs and find affordable housing, only 17 percent of young women and 23 percent of young men lived with their parents. Today, 35 percent of young men live with their parents. The Great Recession and limited job opportunities certainly fed the rise in co-residence since 2008.
But the U.S. isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Ten years ago, researchers looked at co-residence patterns in Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy and other Western nations. Countries that offered financial support for students, jobs for young adults, and easy access to rental apartments provided a pathway to independent living. Only 10 percent of grown children in Scandinavian countries resided with parents.
By contrast, in Southern European countries, where jobs for young people involved short-term contracts, rental properties were scarce and mortgages nearly impossible to obtain, a whopping 60 percent of grown children lived with their parents.
The effects of co-residence aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, it may not matter whether young people live with their parents.
Our research has shown that contact between generations has increased dramatically during the past two decades, with most young people in touch with their parents daily or even several times a day. Technology and a changing culture of communication have as much to do with frequent parent-child contact as the economy and co-residence.
But the bigger question is whether we should be concerned.
We need to ensure that young people get launched on a solid economic footing. If co-residence between generations is a reflection of economic distress, this does not bode well for the future. On the other hand, the bonds between parents and grown children are stronger than ever, and this may bode well.
The most important factor regarding the implications of co-residence pertains to how parents and grown children feel about it. Our recent research looked at the effects of having grown children living at home for middle-aged parents’ marital ties.
According to data from 2008, before the Great Recession, having grown children living at home put a damper on marital quality. But after the Great Recession, as co-residence became more normal, living with a grown child didn’t affect the parents’ marriage, unless that grown child was suffering some type of life crisis such as a serious health problem, addiction or divorce.
Some parents and grown children accept that co-residence is fine. They view it as a pathway for the young adult to save money and secure a brighter situation. These parents and grown children may enjoy their time together and flourish. Such co-residence can be beneficial to the grown child who gains a foothold based on financial savings. And it also may be rewarding to the parents, too, if they savor the added time with their grown child.
In an ideal world, we’d have plenty of low-cost housing in desirable locations near good jobs. But in today’s economy, it may behoove young adults to move in with parents.
The situation does not have to undermine the grown child’s independence and pathway through adulthood if both parties adjust their expectations and act more like peers. In fact, this time together can generate a potentially strong adult relationship that is important in both lives.
What marriage was to the 20th century, parent/child bonds are to the 21st century. Not the same ending as in the past, but it might turn out to be a happy one.
Karen Fingerman is a professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
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