Changing economic factors, social norms delay transition to adulthood

February 5, 2008

ANN ARBOR—Young adults were often called “lazy” or “slackers” if they continued to live in their parents’ home.

But a greater acceptance of delayed independence and a struggling economy with limited opportunities for college graduates have contributed to the current generation’s home-life situation, according to new findings

“For better or for worse, the current generation is redefining the nature and boundaries of what it means to be a young adult,” said Sheldon Danziger, co-director of the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Compared to their parents, today’s young people are taking longer to complete their schooling, to settle into steady employment with health insurance and to get married and have children, Danziger said.

Those boundaries increasingly involve more young adults living with their parents in their 20s and 30s, without the ridicule that might have occurred decades ago in the United States and other countries.

“The data suggests that social anxiety declines when living with parents becomes widespread enough to be considered socially acceptable rather than as an indicator of the youth’s personal failure,” Danziger said.

The findings appear in a new book that Danziger, the Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy, co-edited with Cecilia E. Rouse, the Theodore A. Wells Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. “The Price of Independence: The Economics of Early Adulthood” is the first significant analysis of how economic conditions—from worsening job opportunities to mounting student debt and higher housing costs—contribute to delays in the transition to adulthood. Experts on public policy and economics chart the evolving life circumstances of 18-35 year olds over the last few decades.

Other findings include:

  • Young men are less likely to be self-sufficient than they were 20 years ago, but young women have generally increased their labor market activities and are earning higher real wages.
  • Young men born in the 1980s are more likely to be uninsured than those born in the 1960s and 1970s and one-half of the lack of insurance coverage among young adults is due to employment instability.
  • Earnings of young workers in the U.S. and a number of industrialized countries have declined relative to the cost of supporting a family, which may explain their protracted dependence on their parents and the delayed age of marriage.
  • Debt, particularly college debt, and housing prices can delay the move to independent living, but these effects are modest.


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