Millennials Are Changing The Face Of Adulthood
14-minute readSeptember 21, 2020
Over the last few years, the term “adulting” has popped into society’s vernacular. Although the word is used to define activities or behaviors that are expected of adults, adulting seems to be more a comment on the emotional state of the millennial generation than anything else.
Millennials’ usage of the term suggests a level of psychic discomfort. Millennials have a desire to be a part of the adult world but feel stuck in a realm between adolescence and adulthood.
This idea is not new. In 2000, Jeffrey Arnett, research professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, coined the term “emerging adulthood.” The phrase was meant to shed light on the fact that delayed milestones – like marriage and parenthood – were causing individuals in their late teens and 20s to spend more time exploring the possible directions their lives could take.
Nearly two decades later, the developmental stage seems to have extended beyond millennials’ mid-20s. Millennials are now 23 – 38 years old, and even the generation’s eldest members still struggle to figure out how to handle the expectations of adulthood.
“The economy has affected the timing of when young people enter adulthood, mainly because the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’ has demanded more education and training from more people than ever before,” says Arnett. “That means a later entry to work, which means a later entry to marriage and parenthood. Voila, emerging adulthood!”
While the demand for higher education initially compelled many millennials to postpone milestones, it’s no secret that the economic downturn of 2008 had a crippling effect on the generation. The Great Recession caused millennials to fall behind financially and further put off the milestones that they attributed to adulthood. Overwhelming debt added insult to injury, but it seems the financial crisis has also had a socio-emotional impact on the generation.
Millennials have been nicknamed the Boomerang Generation as individuals in their 20s and 30s have been moving back in with their parents in record numbers. While the nickname is apt, the label seems to be normalizing the experience in ways that actually may ease millennials’ emotional distress.
After conducting original research, we have found that millennials’ challenges stem from a conflict between their desires and attainable goals. Our societal expectations have created tension for millennials who struggle to find ways to act like adults when financial pressures cause them to feel much more like children. Instead of viewing millennials’ need to move back home as a detriment to the generation, we should be considering how millennials’ circumstances are creating a cultural shift in our society.
To contribute to the dialogue on their living circumstances, we surveyed 463 millennials sourced through an online panel. The sample was controlled to include a combination of those living on their own (240) and those who had moved back in with their parents (223). While there is some disagreement as to the cutoff point for the generation, we chose to define millennials in line with the Pew Research Center and, thus, focused our research on individuals aged 23 – 38.
The Majority Of Millennials Want To Own Their Own Home
Recently, some studies have suggested that millennials are more interested in renting than owning their own homes. These studies seem to imply that there has been a change in generations’ feelings about homeownership that are independent of the financial obstacles that have prevented millennials from purchasing their own homes.
Millennials may be suffering from an economic climate that has led the cost of living and student loan debt to increase more rapidly than incomes. However, just because millennials are having difficulty affording homeownership doesn’t mean that they don’t still dream of it.
According to our research, 84% of millennials who live with their parents and 93% of millennials who live independently say they want to own a home one day. Of the millennials who independently, 48% already own their homes.
So, why are older generations insisting that millennials would prefer to rent than buy their own homes? “Every generation tends to impose their own value systems and beliefs on other generations even after the cultural landscape shifts or systems are no longer applicable to the problems the other generations are facing,” says Jessica Kopitz, a social and personality psychology researcher.
Older generations have viewed homeownership as a cornerstone of adulthood. As a result, they have difficulty appreciating how the financial problems that the younger generation is facing preclude millennials from achieving this milestone.
Millennials don’t just have more debt and higher costs of living than previous generations experienced at the same age, they also have more difficulty obtaining mortgages. Since the housing market crisis, standards for qualifying for a loan have become far more restrictive.
Rents have also increased dramatically, so saving for a down payment has become a real challenge for millennials. And the benefits of moving back home with Mom and Dad tend to brighten an otherwise bleak financial outlook.
Millennials Are Living At Home Because They Have To
The millennial generation has suffered from perpetual disparaging. It has been claimed that millennials live at home because they prefer to sponge off of their parents and are too lazy to look for a job. This kind of stereotyping is dangerous as it can not only negatively impact millennials’ self-image but also skew the way that employers view the generation in the workforce.
Instead of assuming millennials prefer to live at home because they lack initiative, we examined the circumstances behind their living arrangements.
When asked their reasons for living with their parents, the millennials polled listed a variety of motivations, only some of which were financial. The most common reasons for boomeranging were temporary changes in living situations (28%), change in employment status (27%), saving to pay off debt (25%), saving for a down payment (25%) and medical or mental health-related reasons (24%).
Over half (61%) of the millennials who live at home said they’re forced to live with their parents because they don’t have another viable option. This number is not all that surprising, given that nearly half (49%) are currently unemployed.
While some may suggest that these numbers do not challenge the negative assumptions about the generation, it is constructive to consider the fact that just under half (43%) of the millennials who live at home had lived independently before moving back in.
For millennials who are living on their own, 70% said moving back in with their parents would be unpleasant. Yet, almost a quarter (24%) are unemployed, and 23% said that they plan to move back home at some point in the future.
Financial stability clearly weighs on millennials. Even those who already live on their own fear that their ability to be self-sufficient may not be long-lived. While millennials who live on their own have to juggle financial strains independently, those who live with their parents are able to share both financial and household responsibilities, which may create different battles for the individuals.
The Majority Of Millennials Living At Home Contribute To The Household
While living at home can be beneficial for millennials who don’t have the ability to support themselves, one might question whether this support is ultimately healthy for the generation. This question tends to revolve around the rental agreements millennials have with their families.
“One of the benefits of moving home is financial, but it can become counter-productive,” says Ginny Mills, Clinical Director and Lead Parent Facilitator for Full Life Counseling, PLLC. “Living rent-free is a setup for both parents and an adult child to regress into the same dynamic of the teenage years. Power struggles, expectations about who does the cooking/cleaning, and other struggles can be destructive in relationships.”
Mills adds, “Paying rent, even if it is a reduced amount while saving for the future, can represent a true tenant-landlord arrangement that bestows rights and responsibilities on each party.”
Of the millennials living at home, 39% pay their parents rent, and over half of those who pay rent (57%), pay their parents $300 a month or more. According to the Census Bureau, the median gross rent in the United States in 2017 was $982 a month. So, while these millennials are paying less than the country’s median gross rent, their contributions to their households provide them with a significant level of financial responsibility.
Although 61% of millennials don’t pay rent, that doesn’t mean that they are coasting. In exchange for the support that their parents provide, 78% of millennials have non-financial rental agreements with their parents that enable them to contribute to their households.
For the majority of these millennials, the nonfinancial arrangements include taking care of general household maintenance, paying for household items and preparing meals for the family. Although these millennials are living rent-free, having agreed-upon responsibilities tends to reduce the possibility of power struggles within the family.
Furthermore, these nonfinancial agreements go beyond the realm of typical teenage chores, enabling millennials to take on more of the burdens of adulthood despite lacking financial self-sufficiency.
“If an adult child is not paying rent because they contribute to the home in another way – perhaps cleaning, doing laundry, caring for an ill parent, etc. – such an exchange is positive for both the millennial and the parents,” says Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear.” “However, if a parent does not hold an adult child accountable for using money saved on rent to further his or her life situation, then the parent is actually hampering the adult child’s social-emotional well-being and personal growth.”
While nonfinancial rental agreements can be conducive for millennials, it’s critical that the boomerang generation remains forward-looking and possesses an understanding of what the money they’re saving is to be used for in the future.
Millennials Are Struggling To Save
It’s no shock that millennials are still paying off debts. Of all surveyed, only 19% are debt-free. As expected, millennials who rent or own their homes are more likely to be living with debt. And 85% of millennials who live independently report having debt compared to 63% of those who live with their parents.
Therefore, it can be inferred that by living with their parents, millennials are actually using the money they save on rent to help pay off debt. But for those who say that they are living at home in order to save money for a down payment, the forecast seems to be more conjectural.
Although 25% say they’re saving money to buy a home, half of millennials who live at home have $5,000 or less in savings, and 27% have no money saved. Much like their boomeranged contemporaries, half of millennials who live on their own have $5,000 or less in savings, and 18% have no money saved.
Given their limited savings, millennials’ desire to purchase a home may be further impeded by the negative perception they have about their own financial health.
“In the world of psychology, it is understood that if a goal seems too large or out of reach, the individual will feel defeated and not even attempt to reach the goal,” says Manly. “Thus, in today’s world, most millennials feel as if owning a home is so far out of reach that they just give up – and spend what might otherwise be saved.”
Millennials need to be clear on what they’re saving for and actively put money aside to attain that goal. Regardless of how little they may have, contributing to their savings consistently every month will not only help them achieve their objective but also enable them to improve their sense of self.
For millennials who are living at home, identifying a single, financial goal and working towards it regularly may be even more vital given society’s prior tendency to ridicule those who decide to move back in with their parents.
“In general, it’s important for parents to not enable any negative habits their adult child may have,” Manly says. “Thus, if an adult child is living at home to save money for a house, it’s important for that adult child to actually save money to build greater self-esteem and financial standing.”
Therefore, living at home with Mom and Dad can be useful for millennials both financially and psychologically, provided that there’s a specific financial goal that’s tied to the living arrangement, and they are held accountable for working towards it.
Millennials Are Content With Their Current Living Situation
Although moving back home with parents means that millennials may have to readjust to obeying their parents’ rules, the support they receive seems to counterbalance the restrictions, making life at home more gratifying.
Although 52% of millennials who live at home said that they find it frustrating to live with their parents, 50% still said that they enjoy it. While these statistics may seem to be contradictory, they are, in fact, logical.
Regardless of how much parents may pester their millennial children when they live with them, millennials still take pleasure in their parents’ company and are appreciative of their assistance. As one millennial living at home said, “I like that I have my parents’ support and don’t have to pay a lot of rent. I dislike that they are in my business and don’t feel like I have complete privacy here.”
For those who have boomeranged, the presence of family members also seems to alleviate some of the financial anxiety that the generation faces. When discussing the advantages of living with their parents, all millennials said that they appreciate being able to save on rent, but many also referenced the closeness of their familial bond. One participant said, “They still provide me with what I need and still give me unconditional love.”
So millennials may be moving back home because of a financial need, but the rewards extend beyond the monetary. “Given that housing and living expenses are skyrocketing, it is increasingly difficult for millennials to afford good housing. The outside world has become increasingly chaotic and unpredictable. Living at home can provide a sense of safety and stability that reduces overall stress,” says Manly.
Living at home furnishes millennials with a support system that mitigates the emotional strain of financial responsibilities, even though it seems to be doing little to offset the financial stressors themselves.
On the other hand, millennials who live on their own report satisfaction with their living situation in greater numbers. Namely, 88% of this group said they enjoy living without their parents. Yet, just over a third (36%) said they wish they were still living with their parents, and almost half (46%) said their life would be much easier if they were.
When asked what they enjoy about living on their own, the majority of millennials referenced freedom, independence and privacy. However, some also stated they enjoy living on their own because it provides them with a feeling of accomplishment and makes them feel like adults. One participant said, “I love having my own space and hate paying bills, but at the same time, I like it because I am being an adult and responsible.”
This ability to reframe financial responsibilities as a positive contributor to one’s sense of self was not shared by the majority of those surveyed. An overwhelming number of millennials who live on their own mentioned that their financial burdens were a constant source of stress. One participant said, “All of the bills are in my name, and I have no help with that.”
Yet, paying bills was not the only cause of stress these millennials mentioned. Feelings of loneliness and a yearning for family were also referenced as reasons for disliking their independent living situation. One participant said, “What I dislike is sometimes I feel lonely and have nobody to talk to,” while another participant said, “I miss my parents’ love.”
Although the assumption is that millennials who live on their own are engaging in a healthier lifestyle, the reality may be that millennials who live with their parents are better adjusted and experiencing higher levels of emotional well-being.
The Stigma Of Living At Home Is No Longer An Issue
To understand millennials’ emotional responses to their living situations, it’s crucial to factor in how the generation views boomeranging. Although there was once shame associated with adult children living with their parents, the stigma appears to have lifted.
Part of the reason for this change seems to be how common it now is for millennials to be living at home. Nearly half (48%) of all millennials surveyed (50% of those who live at home and 46% of those who live independently) said they have a lot of friends who live with their parents.
The financial strains millennials have faced as a result of maturing during the economic downturn have caused living at home to become far more prevalent. Since most millennials have friends who have been forced to return to their childhood homes, the behavior has become normalized to an extent.
Still, just over a third (36%) of millennials who live with their parents reported that they’re embarrassed to tell people about their living situation. Regardless of how this statistic is interpreted, it frustrates the presumption that living with mom and dad stigmatizes Millennials.
“Shifts in judgments from peers about living at home will play an essential role in how millennials adjust to these new circumstances, such as living at home with parents or not owning a home,” says Kopitz.
“We are highly social animals and built to expend much of our brainpower on fitting in and maintaining social norms,” she adds. “If these changes become more normal and peers accept them readily, it’s more unlikely that these changes will have substantial negative effects on individuals.”
If individuals in their 20s and 30s continue to boomerang, we may find that moving back in with parents becomes not just an acceptable choice but an expected behavior, which alters the very ideals of our culture.
“What millennials want and what they can have or do in the current financial climate are very different,” says Kopitz. “So since they can’t shift the financial climate, it looks like they’re trying to shift the norms of young adulthood to do what they must to survive and create their future.”
Looking Towards The Future
Millennials may still be finding their footing in the adult world, but is this developmental delay a problem for the future of the generation? Arnett says, “Nah. Life expectancy is longer than ever, so they’ll still have plenty of time to be adults if they wait until around age 30 to start.”
And by starting later, millennials may actually benefit in the long run. “By waiting longer to get married and start families – particularly until they have finished school, settled into a career or have secured better living situations – millennials seem to be driving down the divorce rate,” says Kopitz. "Which means, the stability flows into their marriage and is seemingly allowing for more stable and well-thought-out partnerships that last.”
Therefore, instead of judging the millennial generation for taking its time reaching milestones that previous generations accomplished earlier in life, we should be considering the ways in which this tendency is improving our society.
Our culture has historically had individualist values, which revere autonomy and self-sufficiency and prioritize the needs of the individual over the community. However, by normalizing the phenomenon of boomeranging, we appear to be moving in the direction of collectivist cultures, which place greater emphasis on familial responsibility and encourage their citizens to put the needs of the community ahead of their own. In these cultures, it is expected that adult children return to their family home to share in household responsibilities and support their families.
“We forget to consider that there are entire cultures who practice this tradition, and more importantly, thrive in it. It may be beneficial to consider what communal living may add to our culture in terms of strengthening familial bonds, encouraging community identity and cooperative connectedness,” says Kopitz. “These ideals may be hard for millennials as they experience the initial shift into having to move home to save money or out of necessity, but over time, if this shift continues, we may see other positive collectivist shifts as well.”
While many in our society may cringe at the thought of shedding their individualist ways, it’s clear that our younger generations need help. Instead of being rigid in our beliefs about what adulthood should look like, we must think about how we can adjust our behavior to support the advancement of all our citizens.
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