If you need any further evidence that the American family is in the throes of change, and no longer a Norman Rockwell portrait of the nuclear nest, check out this finding from the respected Pew Research Center: For the first time in 130 years, more people age 18 to 34 are living with their parents than with a partner in their own households. Slightly more than 32 percent of millennials lived in their parents' home in 2014, according to the analysis published last week and based on U.S. census data. There's also been a dramatic drop in the share of young Americans who choose to settle down romantically before age 35, writes Pew's Richard Fry. Marriage is declining in general, and people are marrying later.
The living-at-home numbers haven't been so high since the 1940s Depression-era peak of about 35 percent, Pew said, which suggests that the reasons are economic. Then, they had the Great Depression. Now, we had the Great Recession. Many young people still can't find jobs, middle-class wages have declined for decades, and housing prices remain out of reach on most single salaries.
But that's not all that's going on. This cohabitation is partly a barometer of the economy, but also partly about women's rising earning power. Women with good jobs aren't quite so ready to accept a mate's bad behavior, fewer are getting pregnant and a pregnancy doesn't lead so quickly to a walk down the aisle as it once did. A good number of single mothers live in their parents' homes.
Americans have been redefining family for decades - through divorce and remarriage, with same-sex couples, with monogamous couples who never marry - and this mix of multiple generations in the house is only the latest twist. Call me over-optimistic, but generations under one roof can benefit everyone involved.
One writer, Alan Jacobs, recently described his experience in multigenerational home this way: "Through living as an extended family my parents got free child care, my grandparents got free rent, and I grew up surrounded by family members who loved me. How did living this way become an image of a 'life gone wrong'?"
Old and young people can also learn from one another. Younger people can witness the metamorphosis of retirement, and the health changes that come with age - and find models on how to plan for these transitions themselves. More hands in the kitchen can mean families eat healthier, and generations can pass along hobbies, interests and skills. This goes both ways - older people can learn from young household members how to use social media to connect with distant family and friends.
An organization called Generations United, which advocates for policy changes to support grandparents who are raising children, says the growth in multigenerational homes is a sign that there's greater harmony between millennials and their parents. Donna M. Butts, the executive director of the Washington-based group, wrote in response to the Pew finding that studies show "millennials and their parents like each other . . . unlike some previous generations who couldn't wait to get away from their parents."
That's a big generalization. Surely, many millennials would like to be out on their own. As I thought about this column, I asked my 17-year-old if her vision for her future is a super-souped-up room of her own in her parents' house. She scoffed before I could get to the second half of the question about an apartment of her own.
I take pride in her growing independence, to be sure. But if life leads her back home for a stay, as the Pew numbers tell us, we'll be in good company.
First published in Newsday. Anne Michaud is the Interactive Opinion Editor for Newsday.