“He’s discovering himself.” That’s what an acquaintance of mine told me when I asked how her son was doing. The young man, who had just turned 26, was playing music in Brooklyn, though not getting paid much to do so. Now, though, he was starting to look for a real job, she confided with relief. “Well, we had told him we would only support him till he was 26.”
I was reminded of this conversation reading a new Pew Research Center analysis out last week finding that more young men and women ages 18 to 34 are living with their parents than living with a spouse or partner in their own home. The researchers at Pew say that this trend is fueled in large part by the number of people choosing to put off marriage. Certainly the economy has been a factor as well. According to the report, “Employed young men are much less likely to live at home than young men without a job, and employment among young men has fallen significantly in recent decades.”
But there may be other factors, as well, in young people’s decisions to stay with their parents. A study to be published by the Brookings Institution found that Americans are moving and changing jobs much less than they used to. Even accounting for the fact that people tend to be less mobile during economic downturns, Americans seem to have become stuck in their places.
It raises the question of whether we as parents are doing enough to equip our children to leave the nest. This is not simply a matter of helicopter parenting—a trend that mostly seems to affect the upper classes, for whom this immobility is less of a problem. It is also a matter of trust. According to the New York Times account of the report, “The proportion of people who agree with the statement, ‘Most people can be trusted,’ has been shrinking for more than three decades. Researchers found that states with larger declines in social trust also had larger declines in labor market fluidity. The lack of trust may increase the cost of job-hunting and make both employees and employers more risk-averse.” David Lapp observed this dynamic in his working-class Ohio town, where family and friends often play a crucial role in helping struggling young people find (better) jobs.
In other words, young Americans may be living in their parents’ basements in part because they don’t have the economic or social tools to strike out on their own. In their desire to protect and love their children and to shield them from the problems they may experience in the world, parents may be creating more obstacles for them.
It’s not only that they can’t trust potential employers or that they don’t have a big enough circle of social and professional contacts to find jobs that are available. This lack of trust may also be informing their romantic relationships. Meeting someone on Tinder or PlentyOfFish means you are more likely to keep your guard up. You have no particular social context in which to evaluate potential romantic matches.
And even if you do end up in a real relationship, what are the chances your partner will stick with you? No doubt many young people simply look at the divorce rate and assume the worst. But we learn about whom to trust and how much to trust first from our parents. An excess of caution and the experience of having their trust betrayed may seal the fate of many young people—at least for the next few years.