Published August 14, 2018
Balancing the traditions of my immigrant culture with the American way of doing things has made parenting hard for me. While parental concern and active involvement—well into adulthood—is seen as loving, right, and good in my Iraqi subculture, Americans see it as intrusive, a curb on freedom, and a stunting of maturity. Take, for example, the way many pundits view the rising number, and duration, of young adults living with their parents.
Pew Research indicates that economic concerns are the primary driver behind the trend of adult children living at home, especially for those without a college education. The factors they list are, “success in the labor market, the cost of living independently, and their debt obligations.” Delayed marriage is yet another factor. In another Pew study, we see a rise in shared living. Shared living is any situation where adults are living together in a nonromantic relationship; this could be unrelated adults, siblings, adult children living with parents, parents living with adult children, or any kind of non-romantic roommate situation. In 2017, 31.9% of the adult population in America was living this way.
In her article on the rising number of young adults living with parents, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote: “In their desire to protect and love their children and to shield them from the problems they may experience in the world, parents may be creating more obstacles for them.”
This struck me as having a kernel of truth but not the fullness thereof: that is, it might be true, but not necessarily so. The American way is to view young adults still at home as a troubling trend; whereas, in the Middle Eastern culture, this extra time at home is a way to expand the social and economic capital of the family.
In fact, my culture strongly encourages young adults to stay living at home until marriage. Even if they go away to college, young adults return home upon graduation. The years right after college are crucial for building social and economic capital in Middle Eastern families.
Typically, in the average Middle Eastern family—no matter the level of education—young adults will live at home until marriage. Rare are the families with a son or daughter who has “moved out.” The goal is the betterment of everyone involved in the household. The adult child is able to save money and still help his or her parents with some household expenses. Along with the money the adult child saves by not living on his or her own, there is also the familial support—social capital. That social capital goes both ways as parents and adult child strengthen each other through love, trust, friendship, sharing economic resources and the responsibility of the household, along with the other ways a family comforts and fortifies itself.
Since marriage is taken seriously, the family more often than not undertakes it together—and not just in arranged marriages, although that still happens once in a while but mostly within the more fundamentalist Muslim subculture. Since the young man living at home has not squandered his income living “on his own” and engaging in loose dating habits, selfishness, isolation, and other socially troubling behaviors, he is in a more stable financial and social position. He has established himself in a job; he has saved some money; he is a member of a family and all the benefits and strength that come from being part of a household. He has put himself in a position where he has a lot to offer a young lady.
Being a more traditional culture, many young women also live with their families until marriage. They get a college education and often begin their careers while still unmarried. Most find this situation very advantageous for financial and social stability.
The lower classes without a college education are bound by the same cultural traditions and it works for their benefit as well, since life can be hard, and the family has to stick together to make a living. None of this is perfect and with these cultural norms, there are some drawbacks, most especially the limits to individual autonomy—doing whatever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want, whenever you want.
But in America, autonomy is a god; therefore anything that leads to adult children having to live with parents is seen as a problem—economic necessity being the only exception, and even then, it is lamented. This god-like status of autonomy coupled with an undercurrent of disapproval of the trend plays a role in depleting social capital.
Studies tell us what is happening, and they can tell us the needs that are driving the trend. But I fear that culture wars and the rise of social science have conditioned us to view the family as comprising individuals. So often we see research on isolated issues such as divorce, marriage, children, motherhood, fatherhood, working moms, stay-at-home moms, and so on. This is a useful tool for social science, but it has its downside: We forget that the family is an institution, there is a wholeness to it. And seeing the family like distinct parts that can be divided like Legos may be helpful for social science, but it may inadvertently set-in the assumption that a family is simply a group of individuals who happen to be related by birth or contract. While we can research the parts, the family is greater than its parts.
Seeing the family as the institution it is, has an impact on how we understand the growth or reduction of social capital. And so we can miss it in the phenomenon of adult children living with parents.
Yuval Levin has written in The Fractured Republic about the epidemic of loneliness and atomization and the ever-thinning condition of the middle layers of American life. Those middle layers are the institutions that stand between the individual and the government. With weakened institutions comes a crisis of social capital. The only way out is to rebuild them. But how do you rebuild? I suggest that one avenue is for more young adults to live at home until marriage. If we step back and view the family as the most important of the middle institutions of society, we can see how we might harness this current trend and use those extra years at home to strengthen the weakened family. And when those adult children eventually do leave home, they can better recreate the institution from which they came.
Our college-age daughter came home this summer, where she took a job locally and also helped us with the care of her younger siblings. In turn, we helped her financially. During the summer, we lived and played together—day in and day out, we learned how to have a true friendship with our young adult daughter, and she learned how to be less selfish with her time, how to give of herself to her closest neighbor—her family. And as she describes it, being back home with her family did not feel like sliding back to immaturity. On the contrary, the responsibilities she took on at work and at home made her feel more independent and grown-up. Her biggest gain, she told me, is not financial, but her friendship with her parents. Beyond summer vacations, unless something unexpected happens, she also plans on coming back home after graduation, either for graduate school or a permanent job locally.
No family is perfect, but every family is a society of people who are called upon to learn how to love and enjoy each other, how to live together as harmoniously as possible. If we can’t do that in the domestic sphere, how can we expect to do that on a grand social level with each other?
And so, I submit that instead of shame and ridicule, let us instead reconsider how we might use this trend of adult children living with their parents to begin rebuilding that most important social institution—the family.
Luma Simms is a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her essays and articles have appeared in First Things, Public Discourse, National Affairs, and other publications.