The Misguided Freakout About Basement-Dwelling Millennials

Almost half of young people "living with their parents" are in college, where all campus housing counts as "living with their parents," according to the Census.
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"Living at home." (jamieleto/Flickr)

More than ever, young people are living in their parents' basements.

You've surely heard that one before. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and others have repeated it over and over in the last few years. More than 15.3 million twentysomethings—and half of young people under 25—live "in their parents’ home," according to official Census statistics.

There's just one problem with those official statistics. They're criminally misleading. When you read the full Census reports, you often come upon this crucial sentence:

It is important to note that the Current Population Survey counts students living in dormitories as living in their parents' home.

When you were adjusting to your freshman roommate, you were "living with your parents." When you snagged that sweet triple with your best friends in grad housing, you were "living with your parents." That one time you launched butt-rattling bottle rockets at the stroke of midnight off your fraternity roof? I hope you didn't make too much noise. After all, you were "living with your parents," and mine definitely went to bed around 11.

If you want to get histrionic about demographic household arrangements, at least be accurate. This observation, for example, is true: "In 1968, young people between 18 and 31 were almost twice as likely to be married than to live at home with their parents, according to the Census; now they're more likely to live with their parents than be married." Definitional issues aside, the share of young people living "at home" is at a half-century high. The question is: Why?


How Young People Live

Pew

According to Richard Fry, the wonderful Pew demographer, the answer has less to do with "laziness" or the recession's impact on Millennial wages and jobs. It has mostly to do with education.

As you can see in the graph below, the share of 18-to-24-year-olds living at home who aren't in college has declined since 1986. But the share of college students living "at home" (i.e.: in dorms, often) has increased. So the Millennials-living-in-our-parents meme is almost entirely a result of higher college attendance. 


Many Millennials "Living at Home" Actually Aren't

Pew

That's crucial to know, because the share of 25- to 29-year-olds with a bachelor degree has grown by almost 50 percent since the early 1980s. More than 84 percent of today's 27-year-olds spend at least some time in college and now 40 percent have a bachelor's or associate's degree. More young people going to school means more young people living in dorms, which means more young people "living with their parents," according to the weird Census. 

Almost half of young people "living with their parents" are in college, where all campus housing counts as "living with their parents."

Scary Millennials Trends are fun and popular—young people read them to feel outraged; parents read them to gauge their own Millennial's progress; others read them for schadenfreudeIf we're going to freak out about young people, let's do so for the right reasons. Unemployment is too high, entry-level jobs are depressingly salaried, and many have taken on student loans that will negatively shape their immediate future. 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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