America found itself distracted over the past few weeks by the bizarre story of Michael Rotondo, a 30-year-old man living with his parents who had overstayed his welcome. The story made national headlines when Rotondo’s frustrated folks filed a court order to evict their son from their home, and Rotondo mounted a spirited, if ultimately unsuccessful, defense to stay for six more months.
The story spiraled into the absurd, with Rotondo reportedly soaking in the attention and pulling up a chair alongside right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Rotondo’s residency launched plenty of debate over his choices, and he was upheld as a spoiled and entitled millennial. (If there’s one thing media companies love, it’s the chance to stir up debate about millennials.)
A couple in New York is taking their 30 year old son to court because he wont move out! He doesn't pay rent and doesn't do any chores! They've issued him FIVE written notices, but he still wont budge.
— Jennifer Epstein (@jenepsteinfox13) May 21, 2018
But lost in the media maelstrom are the roughly 24 million 18- to 34-year-olds who live with their parents (according to a U.S. Census Bureau report) and are not currently being evicted. The reality of these young adults who live at home is more interesting, if less sensational, than the saga of Michael Rotondo.
“Mom, Meatloaf!”—Living at Home Stereotypes
Perhaps the media fascination with Rotondo stems from a character archetype that has been established for young adults who live with their parents. His story brings to mind Will Ferrell’s meatloaf-demanding Chazz Reinhold from Wedding Crashers or John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell (again) in Step Brothers: stunted adult children who sit on the couch, obsess over video games, and contribute nothing to society (except a few hilarious one-liners).
But the truth for young adults living with their parents is vastly different from this portrait; at least, that is one of the findings in the aforementioned Census Bureau report—”The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood”—written by Jonathan Vespa, who spoke with Urbo for this story.
Vespa acknowledges there are a lot of stories and stereotypes and talks of a failure to launch about the typical adult that lives at home and sought to unpack some of that in the report. The biggest surprise of the Census findings is that, of all 18- to 34 year-olds living at home, three out of four are either working or enrolled in school. Only one in four young adults living with their parents is unemployed or a student—but even within that 25 percent, there are some interesting revelations.
Types of Young Adults Still Living at Home
The stories of adults who took up extended residences with their parents are varied. We spoke with Reese, an airline pilot. Now a homeowner, he and his wife previously lived with his parents for a few years. The couple had just gotten married and had very hectic work schedules at 36,000 feet—Reese as a pilot and his wife as a flight attendant.
“It worked out great for us because we had such odd schedules,” Reese shares. “We’d be gone pretty much all weekend long and then come back Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.” The weekly schedule was serendipitous because it allowed the couple to mostly stay out of the way, as their days off were in the middle of the typical work week. “It just made a lot of sense for us,” Reese explains. “We thought, why have an apartment when we’re gone half the month?”
Another young adult, Dylan, recently moved home after finishing school.
“I did move back home after school, but I did not live at home during school,” he says. “Essentially, I had zero money saved after getting my bachelor’s degree, so there wasn’t really another practical option after graduation.” Dylan shares that, despite working between one and three jobs while in school, money was often tight, so moving in with his folks was a huge financial relief.
“The obvious and palpable benefit was having virtually no bills or sense of urgency to pay for things necessary for survival,” Dylan reveals, adding, “There’s always food in the house.” The economic relief gave Dylan time to find his first full-time job out of school.
The stories of Reese and Dylan seem consistent with the data in Vespa’s report that three-fourths of folks living with their parents are staying busy in the workforce or getting an education. But what about the one-fourth who aren’t?
The “Idle” Adults
Vespa’s report uses the term “idle” to describe those living at home who are neither working nor in school, but that term can be deceiving. One trend among those adults living with their parents that Vespa found fascinating was that they were far more likely to be a parent themselves, taking care of a child—hardly “idle” work.
Me having a baby and living with my mother doesn't make me a bad parent for not having my own place. It takes time to get an apartment.
— chynna jo (@chynnajo) October 18, 2016
“Another interesting trend we found,” Vespa shares, “is that adults in this group were far more likely to report a disability.” The report shows that 28 percent of idle adults have reported a disability that may be preventing them from seeking work. According to Vespa, a major discovery from the report is that young adults living at home may not be there for solely economic reasons—they may be there for caregiving reasons. “That is something that often gets lost in the stories we hear about millennials living at home,” Vespa says.
Happy at home?
For those who do choose to live at home, does everyone in the family get along smoothly? Most parents love having their children visit—and often protest when kids don’t visit enough—but do issues arise when multiple generations of adults live under the same roof?
Reese saw very little downside to moving in with his parents for a period of time, mostly because there wasn’t any family friction to begin with. “We all got along socially really well, so that was nice,” recalls Reese. He adds that the camaraderie of family was a welcome side benefit: “When you’re in a big apartment complex by yourself, you see some people, but you kind of duck in and out. At home, it was nice to have the social aspect.” He admits it helped that he and his folks already liked to talk and joke about the same things, acknowledging it may not always be that way for others.
The move home for Dylan has been very beneficial, he says, but he’ll admit there are some drawbacks: “Obviously a lack of privacy, and smaller issues like wanting my own pet or just the desire to decorate my own place.” At first, he wasn’t certain everything would be smooth sailing living under his parents’ roof after graduating from college, revealing, “I definitely was nervous about living with my mom, who can be somewhat overbearing at times.”
Living with my parents has been a blessing. Yes, I miss the freedom of being on my own. However, I’ll temporarily sacrifice that to save money and ensure that once I move out, it is for good.
— lex. (@thatchicklexie) May 6, 2018
Still, the economic advantages could not be understated: “I went from needing months to save up just $1,000 at school to getting this from my first paycheck after two weeks, and that felt incredible,” Dylan says. “I definitely made all of my income expendable and did a lot of traveling, partying, shopping, etc.” The financial benefits of living with one’s folks are clear and often do play a major role in the decision to move home. But there’s a larger issue at play when it comes to millennials living at home, and it stems from how an entire generation views the very idea of what it means to be an adult.
According to the Census report, in 2016, more young adults lived with their parents (22.9 percent) than lived with a spouse (19.9 percent). Compare that to 1975 when 31.9 percent of young adults were living with a spouse. This shift can be tied to the changing perception among millennials of what it means to be an adult.
Vespa shares that one revelation from the report centers around what people today consider the most important milestones of being an adult: “The two highest-ranked milestones were completing formal schooling and being employed full time.” These are the milestones most Americans believe a person should achieve to be considered reaching adulthood.
This is a marked contrast with past generations that saw marriage and children as the most critical signifiers of being an adult. Today’s Americans don’t see it that way at all. “Only about 10 percent of Americans think getting married and having children are a very important marker of adulthood,” Vespa says.
He also brings up an interesting point: A generation ago, marriage was seen as a way to help gain economic security, but now, getting married is something often done after achieving some financial stability. Vespa shares that sociologist Andrew Cherlin calls marriage a “capstone experience,” meaning it is the final piece of adulthood for many. That is different from previous generations, who were more inclined to use marriage as a cornerstone that the rest of their adult experience was built upon.
Our discussion with Dylan about what it means to grow up reflects the changing notion of adulthood. Though Dylan belongs to the very last wave of the millennial generation at 22 years old (Pew Research defines millennials as anyone born before 1997), he offers an idea of how millennials view becoming an adult. “I think we’re living in a society where you can really see just how uniquely everyone experiences this life, and that for me sort of muddles any sense of a ubiquitous keystone event that marks adulthood,” he says.
When considering some of the traditional milestones discussed in the report, he agrees that such major life events as working full time, living independently, getting married, and having children are important, but he points out they are not always the most important to millennials. “…I’ve also seen people my age be proud of making their own appointments or cooking their own meals or even just paying for something on their own, and call it ‘adulting,’” he says.
The term “adulting” has been kicked around the internet with a sense of ironic detachment for years, but it really took off from 2014 to 2016. Is it just a way for young adults to get a laugh out of the mundane, or is it really viewing the basic tasks of responsible adults as legitimate achievements? It seems to draw a line for young people to say I do these grown up things, but don’t mistake me for a responsible adult. Indeed, some view the term with scorn that pushes millennials more deeply into the helpless slacker mold that the news hoopla around Michael Rotondo happily markets.
While volumes could be written on the millennial generation’s approach to growing up, it’s probably safe to say not many are losing sleep over the term adulting. Dylan doesn’t see a problem with it: “I think as long as you feel proud of yourself and a sense of growth after doing something, that’s a significant experience.”
From Adulthood to Eviction
While many young people are living at home for extended stints, none have gotten the kind of judicial due process and media publicity of Rotondo. But how long is too long to stay? How old is too old?
That’s a difficult question, but most adults who move in with their parents will likely have some vague exit strategy in mind. Reese never had any real conflict with his folks, though the arrangement wasn’t without issue. A bathroom refurb brought the whole household down to one bathroom, right outside the room where Reese and his wife stayed, which only helped to underscore the closeness of the circumstances.
moving out of your parents house means that you might have to eat a can of peaches for dinner a few times a week 🙃
— karlie maughan (@karlieshae) June 17, 2018
But again, the situation made sense for the couple until a new, more advantageous living arrangement sprang up and allowed them to move out. But while he was living at home? “It didn’t bother me in the least,” Reese declares. Meanwhile, Dylan—still living at home—has set himself a hard limit of living there for two years.
What about living at home even further into adulthood? The study covers adults from ages 18 to 34. Beyond that, Vespa explains, adults usually live with their parents for caregiving purposes: “When you see people in their late 30s or 40s co-living with their parents, the question becomes, ‘What sort of need do their parents have?’” Sometimes, parents ask their children to live with them to help with rent or other needs the parents might have. Also, Vespa says that in Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, it is not uncommon for young adults to live with their parents well into their 30s.
Really, living at home is just as much about culture and social norms as economics. Reese never felt any embarrassment over the arrangement at the time: ”There was some self-deprecating humor, I would make fun of myself a lot.” But Reese never felt there was any kind of social stigma associated with his situation. “If anyone was making fun of me,” Reese explains, “then it was behind my back.”
On June 1, 2018, a small gaggle of reporters staked out a suburban street to watch 30-year-old Rotondo pack up his Volkswagen, get a quick battery jump, and finally move out of his parents’ house, just hours before the court-ordered deadline. While there was some hubbub over a few boxes of LEGOs that reportedly belong to Rotondo’s son (who Rotondo currently can only see with supervised visits), it appears this part of his story has come to a close.
While Rotondo’s story elicits everything from political opinions to pity to late-night bits, it’s clear that his famous freeloading is far more the exception than the rule. While many millennials are no stranger to crashing with their parents for a period of time, these stays are usually just temporary pit stops on the way to the various milestones of adulthood and financial independence.
So it seems the deadbeat millennial narrative can rest in peace for now. Luckily, the media is adept at finding new millennial crises, like the wanton killing of innocent building blocks of American life such as napkins, bar soap, and working 9 to 5.