The news that came out this week reported that over a third of 18 to 30-year-olds were living at home with their parents. The most typical reason given for this continued rise over the last few years is the difficulty twentysomethings are having finding adequate employment to be out on their own. What most people are unaware of is that, for the last quarter of a century, a sizable minority of twentysomethings have been living at home anyway, rather than moving out on their own.
For the last 60 years the desired pattern for American families was for children to grow up through high school and perhaps college, move out, get a job, get married, have children and establish their own new nuclear families. The majority of young people did that, so that the prevailing American family was composed of two generations – parents and growing children. However, the primary family structure throughout all of human history, until very recently, has been three or four generations living together on the same plot of ground so that you had young people being married and having babies and raising them, but living with their grandparents and frequently great-grandparents. In these cultures, children grew up and largely repeated the occupations and lifestyle of their parents, and inherited the property as the parents became too old to work or died. This type of continued extended family involvement over one’s lifetime fit well with the practice of having marriages arranged and approved by parents. Our typical American desire to pick our own marital partners fits well with the prevailing American pattern of a married couple moving out on their own, having children and starting their own new nuclear family.
Like so many social phenomena, there are pros and cons to having three or more generations living together. There’s certainly a significant economic benefit to be gained by having adult children living at home, instead of having to generate enough money to support a separate residence, with all the attendant expenses. There’s also the benefit of these new adults continuing to interact closely with their parents while the parents hopefully continue to have some wise influence on the decision making and behavior of their enthusiastic, and frequently risk-taking, offspring. Also, when babies are born and toddlers are around, it helps to have more adult hands share in the care and rearing of this next generation. If all the adults are seen as truly being adult and living responsible lives, the grandparents of these new children are likely to really enjoy having their grandchildren around as they grow up.
However, when the prevailing view in the extended family is that the twentysomethings are merely staying home to delay entering responsible adulthood, worry tends to be the order of the day, at least for the older generation which is aiding and abetting what comes to be seen as an extended childhood. This adds an unhappiness, which tends to erode whatever benefits might otherwise be gained from continued living together. Where each adult is seen as being responsible and productive, and where good communication and appropriate behavior exists, there’s a good likely the extended time together will be valuable for all.
In the movie, “Failure to Launch,” Matthew McConnaughy plays a twentysomething only son who loves living at home with his parents, is responsibly employed outside the home, and spends all his time and income enthusiastically pursuing entertaining activities with his friends and their adult toys, including having no intention, for the foreseeable future, of finding an appropriate mate and getting married. This worries his parents so much that they hire Sarah Jessica Parker to woo their son into wanting marriage. This wacky idea is then played out with comedy and drama, and some unexpected nudity, among the mother, father, son and girlfriend, with much reaction along the way from each one’s running buddies.
With each generation since World War II waiting longer and longer for first marriage, and yet getting education and going to work, this movie is simply one look at a real option that many twentysomethings are choosing, as they are delaying choosing a marriage partner and even, by delaying long enough, choosing not to become married at all.