Financial Dependence on Parents: A New Reality for Young People

Most Americans hold antiquated ideals that young adults should be financially independent by age 22.


Hanna Martin

3 years ago | 8 min read

Karalee*, 23, arrived home from work, tired from her 45-minute commute from her job at a video production company in Rochester, NY. She put her dishes from lunch in the kitchen sink before heading to the bathroom for a long, hot shower. The dishes could wait until after her shower. However, when she got to the bathroom, she heard a loud banging noise coming from the kitchen.

“My mom was just banging around all of my dishes, tossing them,” Karalee says. “She was washing them, but it was more of a ‘I shouldn’t have to do this’ type of deal. I was like, ‘You don’t have to do those, I was going to do them.’ And she said, ‘Well, you left them for me to do.’”

Karalee has experienced a fraught relationship with her parents after moving back home post-college graduation when she realized her job wasn’t paying enough for her to live independently. Although she is part of the one third of young adults in the U.S. who live with their parents, most Americans still cling to a nostalgic ideal that children should be financially independent by age 22. In reality, only a quarter of adults aged 22 or younger are financially independent, with most young adults relying on their parents for help with student loan debt and living expenses such as groceries, rent and bills.

Dr. Jennifer Caputo, a sociologist and demographer in intergenerational trends at the University of Chicago, says that because most of the news media bemoans young people’s increasing dependence on parents, many young adults feel ambivalent about their prolonged dependency. But delayed financial independence represents a new economic reality for many college graduates, who amass debt from rising tuition fees only to be met with jobs without solid benefits, such as medical insurance.

Audra Linsner dreamed of living independently in a big city after she graduated from Syracuse University in May 2019. However, when she had to undergo several medical procedures after graduation due to a recurring health issue, she decided to move back in with her parents in her hometown of Clifton Springs. She works two part-time jobs, in a local gift shop and as a graphic designer.

“My mom works for local government, so I knew anywhere that I was going to get a job, I would never have the kind of insurance that she did,” Linsner says. “We’re really, really privileged to have nice insurance. So, I knew it’s going to be the best time to do that. They’ve paid for the six procedures I’ve had over the past three years.”

Students and their families pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree with the hopes of eventually finding a job with a livable wage. Tuition is only increasing. Between 2007 and 2017, the price of attending public schools increased 31%, while tuition at private nonprofit institutions rose 24%. As students amass massive amounts of debt, families are anxious about the payoffs from this investment.

Washington State University sociology professor and researcher Dr. Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson says that young people face a different economic reality today. While previous generations were more likely to get secure jobs with benefits shortly after graduating high school, young people today change jobs more frequently. Although COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the economy, with the unemployment rate spiking to 4.4% in March 2020, young people were more likely than other workers to change jobs even before the pandemic. Twenty-one percent of millennials reported that they had changed jobs between 2015 and 2016, while the job turnover rate for young employees increased by 2.6% the same year.

“The labor market is rewarding bachelor’s degrees more. But also, a lot of jobs that paid well, came with health insurance, and that came with retirement plans are disappearing,” Johnson says. “People who are heading into the labor market after high school, a two-year degree, or a four-year degree are finding that their early jobs are not the kind of jobs that their parents would have gotten. They’re not secure jobs. They’re not jobs with benefits.”

Although Karalee got her job shortly after graduating from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, she says she still doesn’t feel like an adult because she doesn’t have the financial means to live independently. At her current job, she’s getting paid only a dollar an hour more than she earned when she used to work at a pizza shop.

“You go to college and you think you’re going to make a certain amount of money because you have this degree,” she says. “I was like, I have a bachelor’s degree, I’m going to be making at least $15 an hour and I’m like, not there. Not even close to that. And they charge us so much to go to college.”

Kali Smith**, 25, knows all too well the burden of debt from higher education. Smith holds a bachelor’s degree from Millersville University and a master’s degree from American University. She has $180,000 of debt from her education. Although her parents had started a college fund for Smith and her brother, the 2008 recession wiped out their savings. Smith’s parents were unable to provide financial assistance until she was in graduate school because of family conflict and financial issues.

Smith recently moved out of her mother’s house in Pennsylvania and now works in Washington, D.C. as an economic researcher for the Department of Homeland Security. On weekends, she returns to Pennsylvania to take care of her grandmother, as her mother is deployed overseas with the U.S. Army. Because she does not have a relationship with her father, she receives no aid from him, making paying back the debt even more daunting.

Within the next several years, she will begin to make enough money to better financially support herself and focus on paying back her loans. Until then, she must occasionally rely on her mother for help with living expenses, such as groceries and rent.

“I’m just going to try to aggressively pay things down so that I can start throwing money at my loans,” she says. “It’s extremely difficult to function and to move on with the rest of your life if you’re having to spend so much money on your loans. You can’t spend it on a house, you can’t spend that on a child, you can’t spend that on a wedding, you can’t spend it on anything else.

Dr. Karen Fingerman, a researcher and professor in family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to me in an email that the modern marker of adulthood isn’t getting married or having a child. Instead, you’re an adult when you have the resources to be independent and can take responsibility over your own decisions. Yet today, young people are experiencing this autonomy later than in the past.

Caputo describes the baby boomer generation as “unique,” remarking on their ability to quickly move out of their parents’ home, get a high paying job and start a family shortly after high school graduation. Between 1975 and 2016, the percentage of young adults living with a spouse dropped 30%, while the percentage living in their parents’ home rose from 26% to 31%. These past generations established the ideal of the nuclear family, as they didn’t have to worry about paying back debt from education during their first several decades of adulthood.

“The economy has affected people’s family decisions, but I also think norms around family are changing,” Caputo says. “I think that people have more freedom, that they don’t feel like they have to follow this pathway where they get married very young and have children. Having more freedom to choose your own pathway is a good thing.”

Gerardo Gonzalez, 27, has chosen his own pathway in life. After struggling in his classes for five years, he finally passed enough credits to graduate high school. At Victor Valley Community College near his home in San Bernardino County, California, he found himself in an administrative justice 101 class. He loved it, and for the first time in his life, he was excelling in school.

After earning his associate’s degree, Gonzalez wanted to continue studying criminology and law enforcement, so he transferred to California State University, Fresno, four hours from his home. However, he had wanted to go into the military since high school. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2018, Gonzalez moved back in with his parents, took a job as an auditor at a hotel and is now studying to become a pilot in the U.S. Navy. Although he is close to his parents, Gonzalez describes his complete dependence on them as a “necessary evil.”

“My relationship with my parents is really good,” he says. “We get along really well. I’ve always been able to ask them anything or tell them anything. They’ve always supported me in everything.”

Like Gonzalez and his parents, many adult children and their parents are now closer than ever before. Johnson says that today, young people are more likely to regard a parent as their best friend. However, while modern young people may share more interests with their parents, past generations were different.

“The generational gap in culture, preferences, and lifestyle was bigger, and so young people wanted to move out and start their own lives,” Johnson says. “Today, young people like their parents more and relate to them better. It’s more likely that you would listen to the same music and go to the save movies as your parents than it was for previous generations.”

Although parents and children tend to view their closeness positively, they still feel societal pressure to conform to the precedent set by the baby boomer generation. While most young people are still dependent on their parents, 64% of Americans still think that children should be financially independent by age 22, leading some young people to feel guilty about their dependence and some parents to feel anxious about their children’s delayed independence. Fingerman writes that Americans are experiencing a “cultural lag” in beliefs: because previous generations became independent at younger ages, we assume that young people today should be independent.

“Behaviors have changed but beliefs haven’t,” she writes. “A tight bond between young adults and parents is normal today — most young adults have these tight bonds, and it seems to benefit both parties. But parents, and to some extent grown children, seem to think there is something wrong with the tight bond.”

Married couple Kenzie Hettinger and Dakota Stover, both 22, feel the pressure to eventually move out of Hettinger’s mother’s house. Living in a single-family home with Hettinger’s mother, sisters and their three-year-old daughter, the family frequently fights. Hettinger, a full-time nursing student at York College of Pennsylvania, says that although she and her husband plan to buy a house after she graduates this semester, her current dependency on her mother makes her anxious. She’s worried that she will continue to be dependent.

“I feel bad taking from my mom and not doing as much as I should be doing for her. And a lot of it also stems from my dad,” Hettinger says. “He doesn’t live with us, but he uses me for money, and I feel like I’m using my mom, so I feel extra guilty about it.”

Although young adults may feel pressure to be financially independent, Caputo says that increased dependence on parents simply represents a new experience of young adulthood.

“It’s just a larger shift,” Caputo says. “You do see a lot of that support flowing from parents to adult children, but it’s not so easy, and I really hate to see the articles that are just like, ‘Ugh, millennials are so dependent.’ It’s a more complicated story.”

*Source only wanted first name included.
**Name has been changed

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Hanna Martin







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