A recent survey from Pew Research found that 18-34 year-olds are living with their parents for much longer than any generation since the 1960s. 43% of men and 37% of women in this age group are living at home. Commentators on last night’s PBS News Hour called it “the new normal.” But it’s actually the same old normal. The US has been an aberration for decades.
The myth that young people should leave the nest at 18, never to return, started with iconic American Benjamin Franklin. In his famous autobiography, Franklin wrote about leaving home as a young man, and moving to the crazy young city of Philadelphia with nothing but some rolls tucked under his arms. Out of this story and others like it came the uniquely American notion that kids are only successful if they move away from home and family. In other parts of the world, however, this has never been a model for how young people should behave. From Asia to South America and Europe, people live in extended families with many generations under one roof.
As Pew researcher and economist Richard Fry explained, the shift that we’re seeing in the US isn’t just a result of the Great Recession. Even when job prospects for Millennials improved, we didn’t see more of them leaving their family homes. Likely that’s because people in this demographic come from a far more diverse set of backgrounds than previous generations. Their choices to stay at home probably reflect social values as much as they do changing economic conditions.
In other words, the US is finally in step with the rest of the world when it comes to how we live. The idea that family units should break into tiny “nuclear families” of parents and children who live far from elder generations was a weird experiment conducted mostly by white people in the US during the mid-twentieth century. And as I said earlier, it was an aberration. People hadn’t done it historically in the US, despite the Franklin ideal. And they certainly weren’t doing it in other countries.
Instead of reacting with barely-concealed horror at the news that Millennials are living in extended families, maybe we should accept that the nuclear family experiment was a failure. And you know why that might be? Because it’s actually nice to live with a big family and have lots of people around to talk to and cook with and share life’s burdens with when the going gets tough.
Nuclear families are lonely places. Sure, there can be problems with extended families, and it can get a little close for comfort. But for the younger generations, it’s clear that this option is becoming almost as appealing as living alone. And that’s not the “new normal.” It’s just normal.