The typical image of an American household is that of a mother and father living with their two children and the beloved family dog. When the children reach adulthood, they go off on their own to make something of themselves.
This image, very different from that of other cultures, is even beginning to less accurately depict the modern American family. Unfortunately, this is not because we are moving closer to an ideal, but rather adapting poorly to societal changes.
America Has an Individualist Culture
Traditionally, the American household did consist of the nuclear family alone, with extended family living separately. After the Great Depression, it was common for young adults to move out of the family home. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the number of young adults living with their parents steeply declined. This dynamic was largely influenced by individualism — an attribute of American culture that has been around since our founding.
Individualist cultures are self-centric, viewing each person as having special talents, unique potential, and agency over their own life. Personal independence is highly important to such cultures. In contrast with this is collectivism, which values interdependence. Those living in collectivist cultures are more likely to define themselves based on their relationships with others. Such cultures, prominent in African and Asian countries, are dominated by multigenerational households.
Personal independence is highly important to individualist cultures.
Americans have long held an individualist mentality, which inevitably laid the groundwork for the expectation that, upon reaching adulthood, children would move out from under their parents’ roof. Young adults were expected to go out into the world and make something of themselves. Earning a solid income, establishing roots in a community, and starting a family were once the rule rather than the exception. Multigenerational households used to be very rare in the United States.
Young Adult Americans Aren’t Moving out on Their Own
Now, however, a majority of young adults in the U.S. still live with their parents. This is not because we’re developing into a collectivist culture, though. Familial ties are not strengthening; duty to the elderly is not suddenly becoming a strong cultural value; the village mentality is not becoming prominent. Rather, we’re simply succumbing to a struggling economy — the product of a number of societal failures. We can no longer afford to live by our ideals of independence and self-sufficiency. More and more, young Americans are remaining dependent upon their parents.
The last time we saw such numbers of dependent young adults was during the Great Depression. History is, in a sense, repeating itself. We’re not witnessing the poverty of the ‘30s, but today’s economy is less than healthy, and the trend is downward. In 2020, student loan debt reached a record $1.56 trillion, with the average debt coming out around $33,000. Nearly 45 million Americans are living with this debt.
The last time we saw such numbers of dependent young adults was during the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, this is not offset by a booming job market. In fact, the unemployment rate for recent college grads exceeds that of the general population, and roughly 41% are working in jobs that don’t even require a degree. Most young adults are choosing to pay exorbitant amounts for a practically useless degree that will only financially burden, not benefit, them.
Making a bad situation worse are the coronavirus restrictions and shutdowns that have plagued the country and stunted the economy for almost a year now. The number of young adults living with their parents jumped 5% between February and July of 2020, as the economy slowed dramatically under these unconstitutional shutdowns, decreasing employment by 13% in just four months.
Unhappy and Poor Multigenerational Households in Europe
This trend of young adults moving back home mimics that of many European nations — and for similar reasons. In 2017, nearly 40% of young adults in the EU still lived with at least one parent. This was largely due to the 2008 recession and ensuing European debt crisis, which forced many young people out of jobs and back into their parents’ basements.
The dynamic is a strained one, with low life satisfaction for all involved parties.
These are not happy multigenerational households; the dynamic is a strained one, with low life satisfaction for all involved parties. Furthermore, such households are more likely to experience serious deprivation — that is, being unable to afford commodities, such as heat and new clothing.
One may imagine a multigenerational household as being full of cousins chattering, mothers and grandmothers happily cooking together, and grandchildren sitting about the feet of their wise grandfather. While this is the reality in some collectivist cultures, it’s not the reality in Europe and America. We’re seeing an unfortunate turn away from our founding ideals due to a suffering economy. If we continue on this trajectory, we will likely end up like the EU, with a dependent generation heading towards poverty and lower levels of life satisfaction.