Despite many young people moving back home after college, some still cling to old narratives that stigmatize this decision. Those who move back into their parents’ homes refuse to grow up. They should be off on their own, embracing their independence and autonomy. They are lazy, scared, irresponsible, clingy. These thoughts are often coupled with a generational critique of kids these days, in contrast to the “good ol’ days.”
But times have changed. Many young people graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt — a stark contrast to baby boomers, whose average tuition was just a fraction of today’s costs. And while earning a college degree is still a wise financial decision for most, graduates now face more competition from others with similar credentials and starting incomes that reflect a decades-long trend of stagnated wages for the middle class. Long-term inflation in areas like healthcare and housing, along with recent short-term inflation for things like transportation and food, have put even more pressure on those just starting out in their careers.
For those buried in debt, moving home might not then be a flight from responsibility but rather a responsible decision that can open up new possibilities for their career and life. College debt narrows the choices many young people can make as they begin their careers. Some will pursue the highest-paying job available, regardless of whether or not the work is fulfilling, meaningful, or something that allows them to contribute to the common good. Some will abandon the field they studied or their passion in order to pay immediate bills.
Living at home can provide precious time to find the right path. It can make it easier to take an entry-level job in one’s desired field that will allow the person to move up in that industry over time. It can allow young people to make real progress in paying their debt and reducing burdens down the road. Living at home is sometimes the only viable way for young people to build enough savings for a down payment on a home. In this way, living at home may actually be the prudent, responsible decision.
We should also question the cult of autonomy that is seemingly omnipresent in the culture created by baby boomers. For many Americans, freedom means unrestrained choice and independence from others. To be dependent on others, to have to consider their feelings and needs, to have responsibilities and duties that are not the product of pure choice seems confining and undesirable.
But this myopic view of freedom as limitless autonomy has been disastrous. We are facing an epidemic of loneliness that is one of the gravest challenges our country faces. It is reflected in rising rates of depression, sadness, self-harm, early death, and more. Yet we still pursue more autonomy — when what we actually need is more community.
Community opens the door to meaning, connection, and purpose. And the path to fixing this epidemic lies in embracing an authentic understanding of freedom that recognizes that human beings are social by nature. This is not a freedom from others, but a freedom to flourish with others — the freedom of a person embedded in communities where they are known, valued, and loved. It is oriented toward a vision of a rich life that involves responsibilities to others and mutual dependence. There is value in choice and autonomy, but when they supersede every other value, they foster a culture of isolation, loneliness, and despair.
When we have a better understanding of freedom, we might be able to appreciate the benefits of intergenerational or even multigenerational living. The people around us are no longer just obstacles to doing whatever we feel like doing at that particular moment. We value their flourishing, just as they value ours. And we can find comfort and joy in living together.
Of course, that is not every home and not everyone is suited to live at home. It may not be financially viable. It may not be the best option. There may be challenges in a home that would lead to far more conflict or unrest than security or community.
Likewise, some young people may use the opportunity to fully retreat from ‘adulting,’ treating their mom or dad like a combination of short-order cook, maid service, and personal assistant. But there is nothing inevitable about this. Just as children should take on greater responsibilities in the home as they age, adults who live at home can learn, grow, and challenge themselves to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. This may, in fact, better prepare them to live a life of meaning and connection than living alone across town or across the country.