Coming Home for the Recession

AP Photo/Bob Leverone

This is the third installment of a four-part series on Millennials and the new economy, based on the author’s monthlong road trip with stops in the Rust Belt, Omaha, and Texas. Read the first and second.

One mosquito-heavy evening in May, I met 30-year-old Pat Valdez near San Antonio’s old Lone Star brewery. Valdez makes $15 an hour working in the human-resources department of Wells Fargo. She takes classes part-time at an online university, where she hopes to earn a degree in journalism. With $30,000 in student-loan debt, she’s living paycheck to paycheck. But unlike other Millennials struggling to make ends meet on their own, she’s not in dire straits. After a short, “way too expensive” stint in California living with her older brother, she’s back at home with her parents. 

She suspects that some people from her South Side neighborhood think she is following the example of many other women in more traditional Hispanic families: staying home until she marries. “Where I come from, the idea is that a daughter meets a guy, and moves in with him when she gets pregnant,” she says. But for her, it has nothing to do with marriage or kids. “I can’t afford to live on my own. Plain and simple.”

In the past few years, so-called “boomerang kids”—young people who leave to pursue school or a job before returning home—have gotten a bad rap. They have been accused of being underdeveloped, harmful to the economy, or spoiled, unadventurous brats. Our twenties are now called “emerging adulthood.” There’s been constant handwringing over that scary statistic claiming 85 percent of recent college graduates move back in with their parents.

But lost in the scuffle are working-class, ethnic families like Valdez’s, where it’s completely acceptable for a kid to stay at home longer. The number of minority young adults, especially Hispanics and Asian-Americans, living at home has risen noticeably over the last five years, according to a recent Ohio State study. This is partly because uneducated Millennials—the ones most likely to live at home—are disproportionately of color. But in many of these communities, there’s less stigma attached. “It’s a culture thing,” Valdez told me. “It feels natural, and it does help if you’re struggling.” As children of immigrants become Americanized, they generally cast more traditional family structures by the wayside; pre-recession, young women like Valdez from conservative ethnic families would have declared their independence by flying the coop on their 18th birthdays. (Latinas, for their part, are still enrolling in college in record numbers.) But for some Millennials, even those pursuing a college degree, the bad economy has reinforced the same family structure they might have rebelled against a couple decades earlier.

On my reporting trip through the Rust Belt and the South, I met a number of Millennial women of color like Valdez. Thirty-year-old Sara Gonzalez commutes 25 minutes to work from the comfort of her parents’ house while she saves up for a down payment on her own place. Siwatu Salaam-Ra, 21, in Detroit, makes a full salary but chooses to live with her mother and siblings in one big townhouse to help them pay the rent. Tracey Brown, 24, who lives in New Orleans and makes $10 an hour at a co-op grocery store, isn’t supported by her mother directly, but rents her mom’s adjacent apartment at a lower cost than she would on the open market.

Often, the young women I met found themselves in a mutually beneficial situation, at least for now: Not only were they able to gain their financial footing, their parents were happy they were close by. Kameelah Muhammed, a 23-year-old community-college student, was born and raised in East Cleveland with her six brothers and sisters in a traditional Muslim household. All but one still live at home. A couple of years ago, she returned to Cleveland after one semester at North Carolina A&T State University. She’d originally left because “she had lived [in Cleveland] all my life and was going a little crazy,” but eventually, “it got a little expensive.” Her mother didn’t blink an eye when she decided to move back, and that home base proved crucial when she was unemployed for more than a year after she came home. It wouldn’t have been Kameelah’s first choice to live with her mother and siblings—“it’s many people sharing a bathroom, and that’s not good,” she jokes. But, she explains, “that’s kinda what you do, and I was $14,000 in debt.”

Men from these families may not feel the same culture of open arms. While Hispanic young men in the U.S. are actually more likely to live with their parents than women—largely because they get married later and fewer of them are enrolled in college—that doesn’t mean their families are happy about it. Anecdotally, a handful of young Hispanic and Asian men I spoke with described the different expectations put on men. Twenty-six-year-old Pablo Guth, for instance, just moved home after a brief job search in Los Angeles, and told me his mom encouraged him to leave after he was “watching a lot of TV, not really doing anything.” “Guys feel pressure to move out earlier and be their own providers,” Valdez says.

Meanwhile, situations like Muhammed’s and Valdez’s can feel like golden handcuffs. Even though they’re still moving out faster than their male counterparts, minority women are often subject to more scrutiny by their families when they do stay home. Valdez knows her neighborhood thinks she’s “weird for being 30, Hispanic, and without kids.” Gonzalez’s parents like the fact that she’s still at home a lot more than she does, and have bristled at her recent mention of moving out and living alone.

And then there are women like Gonzalez’s sister, 25-year-old Karla Garcia, who escape the confines of the family nest the old-fashioned way: by getting pregnant and married. “She didn’t want a curfew,” says Gonzalez. “She didn’t want our parents telling her what to do. It was easier to run off with her boyfriend.” Garcia didn’t go to college and now works at CVS. She ended up marrying that boyfriend, a mechanic whose salary supports Garcia’s five-year-old daughter. For her, the need for independence from her parents trumped any desire for financial autonomy.

But to women like Valdez and Gonzalez who do want an education and their own career, temporary dependence is worth it in a grim, precarious economy. “It seems weird, but being home right now plays a role into our success in a sense,” says Valdez. “Our goal is to go to school and then focus on having a family.” Which maybe means living with the one they grew up with just a little longer.

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