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Millions of college students have been living at home since their campus closed due to the coronavirus. FG Trade via Getty Images
When the Pew Research Center reported in 2020 that the proportion of 18- to 29-year-old Americans living with their parents increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have seen some of the breathless headlines hyping it became that it is higher than at any time since the Great Depression.
In my view, the real story here is less alarming than you might think. And it's actually a bit more interesting than the summary of the sound bite.
For 30 years I have been studying 18 to 29 year olds, an age group I call "emerging adults" to describe their intermediate status as no longer adolescents but not fully mature.
Just 30 years ago, adulthood—typically characterized by a steady job, a long-term partnership, and financial independence—came later than earlier.
Yes, many aspiring adults are now living with their parents. However, this is part of a larger, longer trend where the percentage has only increased slightly since the outbreak of COVID-19. Additionally, if you have adult children still at home, it probably won't do you or them any lasting harm. In fact, until recently, it was the way adults typically lived throughout history. Today it is still a common practice in most parts of the world.
Staying at home is nothing new or unusual
The Pew report, based on the federal government's monthly updated population survey, shows that 52% of 18-29 year olds currently live with their parents, up from 47% in February. The increase mostly affected the younger emerging adults - aged 18 to 24 - and was mainly due to them coming home from colleges that were closing or having lost their jobs.
Although 52% is the highest percentage in over a century, that number has actually been steadily increasing since it hit a low of 29% in 1960. The main reason for the increase is that more and more young people continued their education in their 20s as the economy shifted from manufacturing to information and technology. Once enrolled in school, most do not earn enough money to live independently.
Before 1900 in the United States, it was typical for young people to live at home until they married in their mid-20s, and there was nothing shameful about that. They typically began working in their early teens—it was rare at the time for children to even get a high school education—and their families depended on the extra income. Virginity was highly valued for young women, so moving out before marriage and not staying at home, where they were protected from young men, was scandalous.
Today, in most parts of the world, it is still typical for aspiring adults to stay at home until at least their late 20s. In countries where collectivism is valued more than individualism—in places as diverse as Italy, Japan, and Mexico—parents tend to prefer their adolescent adults to stay home until marriage. In fact, even after marriage, it remains a common cultural tradition for a young man to bring his wife into his parents' household rather than move out.
Until the modern pension system emerged about a century ago, aging parents were very vulnerable and needed their adult children and daughters-in-law to provide for them in their later years. This tradition continues in many countries, including the two most populous countries in the world, India and China.
In today's individualistic USA, we mostly expect our children to take to the streets by the age of 18 or 19 so that they can learn to be independent and self-sufficient. If they don't, we might worry that something is wrong with them.
You will miss them when they are gone
A long-time researcher of emerging adults, I've conducted many television, radio, and print interviews since the Pew report was published.
The premise always seems to be the same: Isn't that awful?
I would readily agree that it is awful to see your education derailed or you lose your job due to the pandemic. But there's nothing wrong with living with your parents in aspiring adulthood. Like most of the rest of family life, it's a mixed bag: arduous in some ways and rewarding in others.
In a national survey of 18-29 year olds I conducted before the pandemic, 76% of them agreed they get along better with their parents now than they did when they were young, but almost the same majority - 74% - agreed to , "I would prefer to live independently from my parents, even if that means living on a tight budget."
Parents express a similar ambivalence. In a separate national survey I conducted, 61% of parents who had an 18- to 29-year-old child at home were "overwhelmingly positive" about this type of living, and about the same percentage agreed that living together is more emotional closeness and camaraderie with their growing adults. On the other hand, 40% of parents agreed that having their budding adults at home meant worrying about them more, and about 25% said it led to more conflict and more disruption in their daily lives.
As much as most parents enjoy having their budding adults around, they tend to be ready to move on to the next phase in their lives when their youngest child hits their 20s. They have plans they have long put off—to travel, to pursue new forms of leisure, and perhaps to retire or change jobs.
Married people often see this new phase as a time to get to know their spouse again — or to admit that their marriage is over. Those who are divorced or widowed can now have an overnight guest the next morning without worrying about their adult child scrutinizing them at the breakfast table.
My wife Lene and I have direct experience with our 20-year-old twins, who returned home in March after their colleges closed, an experience we share with millions of students across the country. I admit we enjoyed our time as a couple before they moved back in but it was still a joy that they unexpectedly returned as they are full of love and bring so much vibrancy to the dinner table.
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Now the fall semester has started and our daughter Paris is still at home taking her classes via Zoom while our son Miles has returned to college. We are enjoying these months with Paris. She has a great sense of humor and makes an excellent Korean Tofu Rice Bowl. And we all know it won't last.
This is something we should all remember during these strange times, especially for parents and aspiring adults who find themselves back in shared accommodation. It won't last.
You might see this unexpected change as terrible, royal pain and daily stress. Or you could see it as another chance to get to know each other as adults before the aspiring adult sails over the horizon once again, this time never to return.
This article is republished by The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.
It was written by: Jeffrey Arnett, Clark University.
Continue reading:
What is behind the dramatic increase in 3-generation households?
The real midlife crisis that many Americans face
Why has Halloween become so popular among adults?
Jeffrey Arnett does not work for, advise, own any interest in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations other than her academic appointment.

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