February 23, 2021

For Millennials, Generational Shifts Hit Home

Family life looks much different for those ages 25 to 40 than for previous generations

Nafisa Isa was a young professional working in Washington, D.C., and renting a group house with friends when she realized her parents needed her.

“Everything happened all at once,” the 34-year-old said when she found out that her parents were having a hard time financially, so much so that they were at risk of losing their house in suburban Virginia where they lived with her younger siblings. Isa left her life in the city and moved back in with her parents to take over the mortgage and the bills.

“It felt like I blinked and then I was living in the suburbs, picking up my siblings from school, and commuting three hours to work every day. It was a stark contrast,” she said. “There’s often a perception that Millennials aren’t contributing to the collective or community, but we’re not just relying on our parents — there’s more going on for many of us.”

Isa is part of the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996), which is bucking trends set by previous generations when it comes to their approach to family life. Millennials, the oldest of whom are turning 40 in 2021, were less likely to live with a spouse and child in 2019 (30%) than Baby Boomers (46%) or members of the Silent Generation (70%) did at the same time in their lives. Some Millennials live with their parents (14%) and some (14%) live with other family members, both higher percentages than in previous generations. A majority (56%) of Millennials were not married, as of 2019, which is a significant departure from past generations at a comparable age (47% of Gen Xers, 39% of Boomers, and 19% of Silents).

56%
of Millennials were not married, as of 2019

“I have friends who feel like they’re not a ‘real’ adult if they don’t have a partner, children, and a house. I think they are struggling to feel legitimized by society,” said 37-year-old Nancy Kerr, a division manager for a tech company in California’s Bay Area.

Kerr doesn’t feel those same societal pressures, but she’s struck by how economic trends have stunted progress for many members of her generation.

Kerr graduated with a master’s degree right after the 2008 recession and spent two years unable to find a job. Though she and her husband recently bought a house and are beginning to discuss the possibility of having children, those aren’t steps they always thought would be available to them given their financial situation — and they’re definitely not steps that are available to many of their peers.

“That’s a big departure from our parents’ generation,” she said. Her parents were married by their late 20s and had owned multiple houses by the time she was born.

V.R. Craft, a writer who goes by her pen name, is unhappily living with her parents in Arkansas and said that despite having two degrees and working constantly, she can’t imagine being able to afford living on her own or leaving the small town where she grew up.

“I don’t know what a day off is. I work every day,” said the 29-year-old. “I try to save money, but then the check engine light comes on or something, and there goes all the money.”

I try to save money, but then the check engine light comes on or something, and there goes all the money.

V.R. Craft

When Allie Sanders’ boyfriend had his hours cut in 2017, they couldn’t keep up with the lot rent at the mobile community where they lived in Michigan. When they realized his dad, who lived in the same community, was also struggling with bills, it made sense for them all to move in together. Now they live with him and their 5- and 2-year-old kids.

“We still have not reached a point where we are confident we can afford to live somewhere else,” said Sanders, adding that her company has faced bankruptcy and her boyfriend works in the unstable retail customer service sector. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have made things even more precarious.

There are, of course, benefits to intergenerational cohabitation. Isa recently married and moved into an apartment with her husband in Alexandria, Virginia, and said that despite its difficulties, she looks back fondly on her years living with her parents. She’s closer to her siblings now and said that learning to cook Bangladeshi food from her mother was a big benefit.

Kerr said that despite marrying young, she and her husband have rarely lived alone, instead always hosting a “rotating cast of characters,” made up of friends and siblings needing a place to live.

It’s something they happily accommodate — a value they learned from their own parents. 

Sanders hopes that when her children look back at the differences between their generation and hers, they’ll feel a bit more in charge of their own destiny.

“I want them to have roommates because they want them, not because they have to have them to pay rent,” she said. “I want them never to be in a position that they have no choice but to come home — although I hope by the time we reach that point I’ll be able to have a home they will always be able to return to, if they want.”

In that sense, Millennials are just like any other generation, hoping that they’ll be able to provide something slightly better for those to come.

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