It’s easy to make fun of Millennials. They’ve been labeled spoiled, entitled, and lazy, and the fact that so many of them—nearly one in three, according to a recent Pew Research Center report—live at home with their parents only fuels the portrayal of the generation as a bunch of bratty kids.
But while it’s easy to hurl insults at 20-somethings (and 30-somethings) still crashing with their parents, the image of a spoiled upper-middle class adult spending all day on the couch playing video games is pretty far from the reality of most Millennials who wind up back home.
In fact, the very same data from Pew’s recent report doesn’t support that portrayal. Instead, the Millennials who are most likely to wind up living with their relatives are those who come from already marginalized groups that are plagued with low employment, low incomes, and low prospects for moving up the economic ladder. Millennials who live at home are also more likely to be minorities, more likely to be unemployed, and less likely to have a college degree. Living at home is particularly understandable for those who started school and took out loans, but didn’t finish their bachelor’s degree. These Millennials shoulder the burden of student-loan debt without the added benefits of increased job prospects, which can make living with a parent the most viable option.
For as much flack as Millennials get, there are a lot of economic reasons that the complaints some of them have are justified. According to 2014 data from the Census Bureau, median earnings for young adults who were working full-time were only about $34,000 for Millennials. That’s less than what their parents would’ve made in the 1980s, after adjusting for inflation. And that’s for Millennials who have found full-time work. According to Census data, only 65 percent of Millennials were employed as of 2014, compared to about 70 percent in the three decades prior. Those figures may help explain why nearly 20 percent of Millennials have wound up living in poverty—that’s more than five percentage points higher than the poverty rate of young adults in 1980—despite being the most educated cohort of young people in history.
Still, it’s not all about the economy. One of the main reasons that Millennials are staying at home is because they are delaying marriage until later in life, Pew researchers found. That makes sense, since two incomes can certainly make it easier to afford rapidly climbing rent prices, student-loan payments, and the host of other financial responsibilities that come with leaving the nest. But that choice, too, is divided among racial and economic lines: Richer Americans are more likely to get married than poorer ones, and white Americans are more likely be married than minorities. These again increase the chances that poorer and minority Millennials will live at home in higher numbers, and for longer.
And while there may be comedic fodder in the idea of adult children trying to share space with their parents, staying at home for many Millennials and their family isn’t all that funny. For parents who are struggling to make ends meet, an extra mouth to feed or the inability to downsize to a smaller place can be truly burdensome. For many Millennials, moving out, even if they want to, could lead them to make financial decisions that would put them in an even more precarious place, and that’s precisely the opposite of what they, or the economy, need.