Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Changing Patterns of Co-Residence and Home-Leaving
The impression that American youth are remaining at home much longer now than they once did, while not inaccurate, is nonetheless often exaggerated in the mass media.21 As shown in figure 2, the period of co-residence with parents has lengthened notably since the 1960s, when youth left home at a very young age. Today's home-leaving patterns are, in fact, much closer to those of the early 1900s. But though the two patterns are similar, the driving forces behind them are very different: more young adults remained with their parents longer at the beginning of the twentieth century not because they were dependent on them but because they were obliged to contribute to the family economy.22
All the increase in the age of home-leaving in the United States since the 1960s is attributable to delayed marriage.23 Unmarried young adults are, of course, more likely to reside with their parents than those who wed. Consequently, with couples marrying later, youth in their late teens and early twenties moved out of the home more slowly than they had during the postwar years when couples married earlier. This trend is especially pronounced if young adults are continuing their education, as was the case during the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The rate of co-residence declined slightly between 1990 and 2000, perhaps because a strong economy during much of the 1990s afforded young adults the opportunity to move out on their own, although co-residence with parents will likely increase during the first decade of the century owing to the recession of 2008.
The trend toward a later exit from home in the United States parallels that in almost all Western nations, although with considerable variation, particularly in Europe. In the Nordic countries, for example, youth leave home in their late teens, largely owing to the availability of state support. By contrast, lack of state support and long-standing cultural norms favor an extended period of co-residence among youth in Mediterranean nations, lasting for men into their mid-thirties.24
Here in the United States, nearly half of all young adults in their late teens and early twenties still live with their parents. That fraction drops below one in seven by the late twenties and below one in ten by the early thirties.25 By international standards, Americans still leave home relatively early. Women are typically younger than men when they leave home because they complete college earlier, form cohabiting unions earlier, and marry about two years earlier, on average, than men. Regionally, co-residence is substantially higher among families in the Northeast than elsewhere, likely because of the higher costs of housing, higher rates of college attendance, and later entry into full-time employment.26 The rapid growth of immigrant families may have also contributed to the rise of co-residence in the early adult years, although as RubÃ©n Rumbaut and Golnaz Komaei note in their article in this volume, this trend would probably emerge only among second-generation immigrants because foreign-born residents often migrate in their early adult years without their families.
Whereas cohabitation or marriage is generally associated with earlier home departure, single parenthood often works in the opposite direction: young mothers who do not enter a union before bearing a child typically remain in the parental home for several years and receive financial support and child care from their parents. Indeed, the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program and parallel state assistance programs for young parents have required co-residence for teen mothers, a policy that was aimed both at restricting public assistance and at assuring greater parenting supervision for children of young mothers. Whether young parents and their children do better if they remain in their natal home is an unsettled question. In a longitudinal study of teen parents in Baltimore, I found that mothers and their children did better if they lived with the young mother's parents for one or two years, but if they failed to move out thereafter, they fared somewhat worse, perhaps owing to differences between the families that moved out and those that remained at home.27
In general, youth are more likely to remain at home when their biological parents are still living together. In particular, divorce and remarriage among parents have been associated with earlier home-leaving among young adults and with earlier provision and receipt of assistance.28 Youth who grow up living with their mothers only are distinctly less likely to receive help from or provide assistance to their fathers in later life, while children growing up apart from their mothers are not as likely to curtail contact and exchange with their mothers when they reach adulthood. In short, divorce and remarriage tend to create a matrilineal tilt to kinship ties in the United States.29
Research has documented not only the lengthening of home-leaving but also the quality of the relations between co-residing parents and young adult children. Studies report that bonds are close, particularly when the young adults are on a clear path toward moving out. For example, those who remain at home in their early and mid-twenties get along better with their parents when they are studying, working, or looking for work than when they are having serious difficulties moving toward independence.30 Results of the third wave of the Add Health study, a nationally representative, longitudinal sample of young adults between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, reveal that relations with mothers are closer than those with fathers, particularly nonresident fathers (author's tabulations). This finding, replicated in numerous studies, indicates the partial withering of paternal relationships outside of marriage.31 To some degree, paternal involvement remains something of a "package deal" that comes with marriage or at least cohabitation.32
Few studies, however, have examined the texture of family life when young adults reside in the natal household. For example, what kinds of rules, routines, and understandings emerge regarding household obligations, expenses, and the comings and goings of young adults and other family members? Qualitative reports from parents and youth and perhaps analysis of time diaries would go a long way in filling this gap. The media frequently speculate about the irresponsibility of youth in their dealings with their parents, but very little solid evidence substantiates the presumed tensions.
What happens inside families on a day-by-day basis when young adults co-reside with their parents remains a largely unexplored topic. Whether parents provide continued guidance, set expectations, and provide assistance in promoting development after the adolescent years is a topic for further research. Both anecdotal evidence and studies of parental spending give every reason to believe that parents continue to invest heavily, both financially and emotionally, in their young adult children. What is lacking is good qualitative evidence on how parents and young adults work things out.
Along this same line, researchers know more about the timing of home-leaving than about how either young adults or their parents manage the process.33 For example, how much do young people consult or involve their parents in the decision to leave, and how much advice, support, and resources do parents provide as young adults depart? Analysts could learn a great deal about the impact of the process on both young adults and their parents by following both parties during and after the departure from the home. According to census data, of every six young adults who move out, one moves
back in at some point before age thirty-five.34 Reverse transitions appear to be occasioned by financial setbacks, career changes involving a return to school or bouts of unemployment, and the dissolution of cohabitation and marriages.35 Sharon Sassler and her colleagues conducted one of the few qualitative studies on the strategies of managing a return to home. The study reveals the dilemmas of economic dependency in early adulthood for both parents and youth, as well as the ways that young adults cope with receiving support from their parents while still psychologically considering themselves "adults."36 Renegotiating authority inside the family turns out to be a challenging task when youth continue to rely on their parents for economic support, though it appears that many learn ways of achieving greater equality inside the family. Whether and how this negotiation differs in the households of the foreign-born is a question that merits further attention.