30 is the new 20 -- that's the economy's fault

“Sorrow makes us all children,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. But if he were alive today, he would probably be blaming the economy. 

Living with parents, staying in school forever and not starting families until late in life aren’t just tropes of America’s favorite TV shows, they’re some of the defining attributes of today’s young adults, according to Census data.

The bureau looked at people aged 18 to 34 -- roughly corresponding to the millennial generation -- and compared them with people who were in that age bracket in 1976. It found that young Americans today are taking far longer to reach goals that have long been understood as markers of adulthood, like moving out of their parents’ homes, getting married or having children.

In 1976, nearly half of young adults had accomplished the four traditional “markers of adulthood:” entering the labor force, leaving their parents’ home, getting married and having a child. In 2016, only 24 percent had done so. It’s more common for today’s young adults to live with a parent than to live with a spouse. In fact, living with parents is the most common arrangement for 18- to 34-year-olds.

And Americans’ understanding of just how “adult” an adult needs has changed, too. With young people finishing school later and taking longer to find work, they’re putting off families -- and putting less importance on them.

“[M]ost Americans believe young people should accomplish economic milestones before starting a family,” the bureau wrote. More than 90 percent believe finishing school and starting a job are “extremely important” to becoming an adult, it found. Just 10 percent believe having a child is as important. And only a quarter of Americans give equal weight to moving out of your parents’ home.

“There’s been a fundamental change in the transition to adulthood from what it looked like half a century ago,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not simply that there’s a delay in home leaving, completing education, entering the labor force … there’s also real shifts in how young people think of the transition to adulthood from the way their parents and grandparents did.”

The main culprit here is jobs, said Furstenberg. Good-paying jobs often require more education and more time, and many jobs that were held by high-school graduates 40 years ago now routinely require a four-year college degree at a minimum.

“Those jobs where you could start at 18 and be making a decent income by 22 -- they don’t exist anymore,” he said.

As a result, the majority of young adults no longer live in their own household, as they did in the 1970s. Even in 2005, near the peak of the pre-crisis economy, in 35 states the majority of young people lived independently. In 2015, only six states had that arrangement.

In 1976, twice as many young people lived with a spouse as lived with their parents. That trend nearly reversed by 2016, when 23 percent of young adults lived with their parents, and just 20 percent lived with a spouse. And while more young people today work full-time than they did 40 years ago, far fewer own their own home.

Stark as these changes are, they’re not unprecedented, said Furstenberg. The late 19th century, another period when the economy was in flux and some people lived with their parents for a long time, saw the same trends.

“There simply wasn’t a place in the job order for a lot of people as we went from an agricultural to an industrial society,” Furstenberg said. “It didn’t mean they didn’t, in some sense, assume the duties of adults, but they weren’t economically emancipated.”