Over the past few years, the percentage of 25-to-34-year-old Americans living with their parents has been at a record high of nearly 15%. Student debt and difficulty finding a job are sending millennials back home in droves — and though this type of arrangement is certainly easier on the wallet, it can wreak havoc on a young adult’s self-image.
Why, exactly, are so many young people “boomeranging” in the first place? For many, it comes down to money. Skyrocketing rents, high home prices, and job scarcity all play a part, but so does student debt, which can eat up an insane amount of post-grads’ cash flow. The authors of one 2014 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that student debt could, per Slate, “possibly [explain] as much as 50% of the increase [in millennials moving home] since 2003.”
We asked three millennial women to share their stories of moving back home. Here’s what they struggled with — and learned — during the experience.
Two years ago, Meghan moved back in with her parents in New Jersey in a post-breakup state of shock, not just about being newly single, but also about her post-grad-school job prospects — or lack thereof. “I applied to about 60 jobs during graduate school,” she recalls. Though Meghan was offered one super-low-paying job in New York City, she realized “there was no way I'd be able to move to New York, or even afford a daily commute from my parents' home, with that salary.” So she packed it in and headed home to Mom and Dad’s, where she stayed for six months while she applied for even more gigs and figured out her next move.
Living at home “was not easy,” Meghan remembers — especially because her parents were enduring their own challenges at the time; they were going through a divorce. And, returning to the familial nest wasn’t doing any favors for Megan’s own love life. “Oh, it was bleak,” she says. “To be honest, it was a celibate six months.” Though she did a lot of Tinder dating, most of Meghan’s matches lived far from Jersey, so she wouldn’t end up seeing the guys she went out with more than once or twice. “Friends in the city graciously offered couches and floors, so I was able to crash with them,” she explains. But all in all, she found the whole situation almost impossibly awkward. “I felt very self-conscious. Living at home definitely kept me from feeling comfortable meeting new people, and one time I flat-out lied about where I lived."
That impulse is understandable, according to Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, a New York-based couples' therapist. Millennials are “in a stage of life when they’re trying to figure out who they are,” she explains, which can make moving home a difficult adjustment, both professionally and personally." She says it’s important for women living with their parents to be open about their current housing arrangement with new friends and dating prospects, but not to make a massive deal out of it. “Just say something like, ‘I need to tell you my deep, dark secret: I had to temporarily move home with Mom and Dad.’ It is what it is, and it’s not permanent, so [there’s no need] to apologize for it.”
For her part, Meghan is now happily partnered and far away from her parents’ home, living in Italy with her boyfriend. At home, she realized she “craved adventure,” she says. “Even though my parents are wonderful people, I really didn't feel comfortable living at home, especially because I wasn't working. I knew I needed to make a jump, and [moving abroad] was one of the best decisions I've ever made.” Ultimately, the experience of returning to the nest helped Megan realize how important it was for her to try living in a completely new environment.
Carla returned to her parents’ home multiple times after college, living there on and off. The longest stretch lasted about two years in her mid-'20s: After getting laid off, Megan found a job working in a gym, but it paid too little for her to support herself. Living with her parents definitely put a damper on her dating and social life. “Once, I was out at a bar with friends, and a guy I [had a crush on] met up with us,” she remembers. “We ended up going back to his place, and the whole time I was thinking, I have to be back home before my parents notice I stayed out all night. Nothing kills the mood faster.”
Another time, she went out for pizza with some friends after the bars had closed (she was 24 at the time). “My mom called because it was 3:30 a.m. and I wasn't home yet,” she says. This level of control frustrated Carla, making her feel like she’d regressed. After that, Carla decided to lay down the law. “I told her that I knew she was worried about me, but I was an adult who had already lived on her own, and I needed to be treated as such,” Carla explains. After that conversation, her mom and dad began putting in the effort “not to treat me like their child living at home, but their adult daughter living at home.”
That’s exactly what needs to happen, Amatenstein insists. One of the biggest risks involved in moving home is falling back into old family dynamics from childhood or adolescence: “It’s very easy to revert back to acting like a kid, because [maybe] you’re used to being treated like [one],” she says. The most effective way to avoid that is by setting some limits right off the bat. Sure, they may be doing you a favor by letting you live there, but it’s still appropriate to “have a direct conversation and set boundaries,” Amatenstein urges. “Tell them what is and isn’t okay: 'Don't expect me home for dinner every night, I’ll do my own laundry,' whatever. You're not 12 anymore, and you don't want to fall back into those old patterns.”
Carla is now living on her own and finishing up grad school (she’s getting a degree in communications). She’s hoping to avoid another return home, although she fears that if she doesn’t find a job immediately, she may have no better choice. “When you're over 30, I [think] there's [more] stigma attached to living at home,” she observes.
Sandy moved back home with her mom last November after trying to make ends meet for five years on a paltry salary. She’s super-tight with her mom, who she describes as low-key and easy to live with. Her decision to try a quieter path instead of living in a bustling city was partially a lifestyle choice. “I don't want to rush through life anymore,” Sandy says. “I’m trying to appreciate working on things that interest me in my spare time, like cooking, and [I want to] spend a lot of time with family. I don't see myself living with my mom forever, but for right now, I’m really happy here,” she acknowledges.
Still, Sandy is working through some “personal uneasiness” about what living at home says about her. She admits to occasional insecurity, especially when it comes to dating; she worries she might not be as attractive as those who live independently. "It's kind of a weird thing to navigate living with a parent. A lot of people have ingrained ideas about it — that it means you're mooching, or a daddy's girl, which is far from the truth,” she points out. “This is just where I’m at right now… It affects my self esteem. But I have to accept it.”