By Steven Mintz
Special to The Washington Post
— Millennials are the "go nowhere" generation. They're spoiled, lazy, undecided about a line of work and all too willing to move back in with their parents after college. Boomerang kids, they are called — as if every time their moms and dads toss them out, they circle back to crash their parents' hopes of a child-free life. At least that's the rap against them.
It's true that many 20-somethings move back to their childhood homes and let their parents subsidize them in ways that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. But are they really entitled narcissists exploiting their parents' goodwill? I don't think so. I've been teaching undergraduates for 30 years, and when I talk to families, I see parents who are supportive of the semi-empty nest — and a recognition that this is the reality of the current job market.
Not that it is always easy. One New York dad told me in an e-mail that when his son graduated from college in 2009, he urged him to move in with him. "I wanted him to save money and take his time exploring job options. Living together gave me a chance to get to know him as an adult. But it was an odd mixture, partly a return to adolescent dependence (complete with free food and laundry service), and partly adult independence (he kept his own hours and socialized with his own friends). The ground rules had to be worked out, and over time, they were."
The 20-somethings moving back home aren't doing it just for the free laundry, though. One young woman, whose mother died during her junior year at Rutgers, explained that she moved back to her family home to help take care of her younger brother. "I got a part-time job in a fitness center and took classes at a nearby university. Still, I found going back to the nest challenging in ways I hadn't expected. I had grown independent, and my dad treated me as if I was still in high school. After a year I left to live on my own. Returning home made me realize that the time had come to truly grow up."
In instances like these, the parents aren't saps, and their children aren't freeloaders. Both parents and children understand that in a world where the young are saddled with debt and find it difficult to quickly enter a career, parental support — where possible — is indispensable.
After graduation, many of my Columbia University students plan to move back home. And they're happy about this. My generation — Oberlin, Class of 1973 — would have regarded returning home as the ultimate symbol of failure and a huge sacrifice of personal liberty. But my students consider their parents friends. Their homes will be their base camps from which they will pursue the internships and educational experiences they want. For one of my students, this involved volunteer service at the Arab American Family Support Center and internships at Freedom House and Seeds of Peace. She also had the opportunity to curate a museum exhibit before leaving to study Arabic in Qatar. That's a circuitous path, and one that required enormous help from her family well beyond graduation.
But it turns out that this type of path is the best preparation for success in an economy that rewards ambition, risk-taking, entrepreneurship and adaptability.
With very few exceptions, the students whom I and other faculty members around the country work with are not a generation that has gone soft from being coddled. They are a generation facing a historic transformation in the route to a successful job and family life.
In the 1950s and 1960s, most young people reached the markers of conventional adulthood, including marriage, parenthood and homeownership, by their mid-20s. As recently as 1970, half of all women were married by age 21, with their husbands about two years older. With real wages rising rapidly for men, even high school dropouts, but few opportunities for women to achieve economic security on their own, there was little reason to shop around, whether for a long-term job or a long-term mate.
If you were a young man whose parents couldn't afford to send you to college, it made sense to go to work immediately and grab the first job you were offered. If you were a young woman, getting married was often the best investment you could make in your future.
But the old model of plunging directly into independent adult living doesn't work anymore. In fact, the young people who try to follow the 1950s model today often have the toughest time establishing stable and productive lives.
It's not that young people spurn entry-level jobs. It's that entry-level jobs are all too often dead-end jobs. The pay gap between college grads and everyone else has been widening steadily. And even among degree-holders, the best jobs usually go to those who can afford post-graduate training or an unpaid or low-paid internship or training period.
The young people who will do best are those who do not leap out of the nest too soon. As historian Stephanie Coontz points out, postponing marriage, childbearing and permanent commitment to a single job actually increases one's chances of having a good job and a lasting marriage. But doing that without parental assistance is increasingly difficult.
Prolonged education, high living costs and accumulated student loans make it more and more of a challenge for young people to strike out on their own. Given that a substantial majority of college students graduate with debt averaging $22,380 at private schools and $17,700 at public institutions, it's not surprising that 29 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have moved back in temporarily with their parents.
Frank F. Furstenberg of the Council on Contemporary Families has shown that young adults increasingly depend on their parents to support them as they learn how to navigate the working world and deal with paying rent. Today, nearly a quarter of the cost of raising a child occurs after age 17. Of course, those young adults who benefit most from their parents' financial support already come from a relatively privileged background.
The best way to ease kids into adulthood is to do so gradually. It makes the most sense in this economy and offers the best outcomes later on. Early independence carries a hefty price tag. The 20s are the new teens: Binge drinking, drug use and unplanned pregnancy all peak in this decade, and such missteps can impose lifelong penalties.
A century ago, Progressive-era reformers, shocked by the number of teens trapped in dead-end jobs, launched a remarkable campaign to help everyone attend high school. For nearly 40 years, this country opened a new high school, on average, every day. A high school diploma allowed the children of factory workers and farmers to obtain relatively high-skilled, high-wage jobs, narrowing the wage gap among the social classes and enhancing the growth of the nation's economy.
Today, we face a similar problem at the university level. Young people increasingly realize that they cannot earn a living wage without going to college. Yet many are woefully unprepared to do so, both because of the inferior education in most low-income communities and because their parents cannot help them through college. So they work extra hours and take on crippling debt loads. About a third of the students at public or private four-year universities and two-thirds of those who enroll in a community college or a for-profit institution do not earn a degree, while accumulating substantial red ink.
Even for those who graduate, the transition from college to the job market is anything but smooth. Despite expanded career advising services, colleges do a poor job of helping students figure out what they want to do once they enter the working world.
The government and universities could help if they cleared new roads to affordable college education, medical care and living-wage jobs. Improving college graduation rates would certainly make a difference. Strengthening connections between universities and the job market, through co-op and apprenticeship programs, service learning, and expanded internship opportunities, would also help. More broadly available paid national service programs could not only address social problems such as poverty and homelessness but provide an income and job experience to those who participate.
The path to independent adulthood is changing. Now it often must, and actually should, lead back to the family home after college. The good news for parents is that your graduate will achieve economic independence eventually. In the meantime, accept a basic fact of life: Given the realities of today's economy, your nest will not empty out right away.
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Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood" and "Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life."