In my book Beyond Age Rage, I argued that some of the “Oh my God” reaction to Millennials still living at home with their parents, was because it was new, not necessarily because it was bad. After all, if you can’t get a job because you’re not properly trained and/or the economy is still weak, it makes perfect sense to cut costs (maybe all the way down to zero) and room with Mom and Dad. So it’s rational. But can it even be good?
In a very thought-provoking piece in the New York Times magazine, Adam Davidson tries to get comfortable with the idea that this is not just a temporary blip. In fact, he argues, it’s part of a very long-term evolution which has seen young people move from workers (even as children) to people who could not be expected to be in the workforce (until older, and older still, and older still):
Childhood is a fairly recent economic innovation. For most of recorded history, a vast majority of people began working by age 4, typically on a farm, and were full time by 10. According to James Marten, a historian at Marquette University and the editor of The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, it wasn’t until the 1830s, as the U.S. economy began to shift from subsistence agriculture to industry and markets, that life began to change slowly for little kids. Parents were getting richer, family sizes fell and, by the 1850s, school attendance started to become mandatory. By the end of the Civil War, much of American culture had accepted the notion that children under 13 should be protected from economic life, and child-labor laws started emerging around the turn of the century. As the country grew wealthier over the ensuing decades, childhood expanded along with it. Eventually, teenagers were no longer considered younger, less-competent adults but rather older children who should be nurtured and encouraged to explore.
Thus high school, college and then the workforce. The familiar pattern — until the Great Recession. Or so goes the narrative. But Davidson argues that things started becoming unstuck much earlier:
(The) latest recession was only part of the boomerang generation’s problem. In reality, it simply amplified a trend that had been growing stealthily for more than 30 years. Since 1980, the U.S. economy has been destabilized by a series of systemic changes — the growth of foreign trade, rapid advances in technology, changes to the tax code, among others — that have affected all workers but particularly those just embarking on their careers. In 1968, for instance, a vast majority of 20-somethings were living independent lives; more than half were married. But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding. By 2007, before the recession even began, fewer than one in four young adults were married, and 34 percent relied on their parents for rent.
OK, if that’s the case, should we just relax about this? Is it really the “new normal”? Does it have any positive side effects?
Read the article – you might not feel better about what’s going on (especially if you’re the one paying the bills), but you’ll certainly have a more sympathetic perspective. (It also includes a terrific slide show detailing the stories of 14 Millennials who are living that life.)