The Pandemic Proved That the “Moving Out” Milestone Is a Myth. Good.

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In summer 2020, as the pandemic continued to surge and uncertainty loomed, Awo Eni booked a one-way flight from Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas, where she stayed with her parents, her twin sister, and her younger brother in their family home. 

“When the world was in shambles, the pandemic was raging, protests were happening — it was just reassuring for me to be at home with my people,” she explains. The stay wound up being longer than she first anticipated: Though Eni opted to go back to D.C. at the end of the summer, she moved her belongings into storage in January 2021 before returning, again, to her familial home. 

“I feel like a kid again, in the best way,” Eni says. She’s introduced her parents to her favorite shows, and watches soccer with her dad on the weekends. She sees it as an opportunity to plan for her future, and a time to save money to eventually buy her own place — the privilege of which isn’t lost on her. While she admits that “My friends and I always used to make fun of people who stayed in our hometown,” she knows that her childhood home is a decent place to live and work. 

“As the child of immigrants, I compare my privilege and my lived experience to my cousins, friends, and family in other countries,” Eni says. “Everyone lives at home until they get married, and it’s not a big deal, because living [alone] is actually expensive if you do not make a lot of money.” In short, she points out that moving out in early adulthood is, in some ways, a very American rite of passage — and perhaps it’s time to rethink it as a milestone altogether. 

There are certainly instances in which people feel a need or a want to move out, whether for their health or safety, or a goal such as moving to attend a college across the country. Yet treating moving out of a familial home like a milestone of adulthood fails to take into account not just economic circumstances and cultural preferences, but the fact that not everyone moves on the same timeline in the same way. It misses the nuance of how many different configurations of home and family exist. 

The assumption that every young adult wants to move out ignores cultural conceptions of family as well as economic and structural realities. Nearly half of 18- to 34-year-olds report being “rent burdened,” or paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, as of 2018. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has only exacerbated existing structurally racist, discriminatory housing practices, with people of color and those with lower incomes facing disproportionate housing costs and housing instability than white and higher-income people. 

Now, against the backdrop of the pandemic, young people may be prioritizing comfortable, sustainable living over arbitrary timelines for moving out. In September 2020, data from Pew Research Center showed an increase in American young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 living with their parents. But multigenerational living isn’t some pandemic-driven fad: Even before the pandemic, the numbers of young adults living with family was trending upward. According to 2016 data, more young adults in the U.S. were living with their parents than at any time since roughly 1940; some explanations point toward the economy, and higher costs of living making moving out less feasible. Additional data from 2016 showed that roughly 20 percent of the population in the United States was living in a multigenerational household, and that Asian, Hispanic, and Black people are more likely to live in multigenerational households than their white counterparts. 

“The share of adult children under age 30 living in multigenerational households increased dramatically in the 2000s, seemingly in response to economic difficulties,” Hope Harvey, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy & Administration, tells Apartment Therapy.

In today’s labor market, Harvey notes, it’s harder to find a job that affords a person economic independence. When that is coupled with a shortage of affordable rental housing and lower-cost homes for sale, it’s no wonder that living independently is inherently more difficult for many people.

All of the transitions in young adulthood, including moving, are impacted by the economic, social, and cultural structures they are unfolding in. That includes moving. Now, there is greater variation in when society considers you an adult, says Denali Dasgupta, a data and research expert focused on emerging adulthood. An assumption remains that every young adult moving home tried living on their own and failed — but that doesn’t match the reality. “Right under that is the assumption that young people today have the same opportunity that young people did 15 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago,” Dasgupta adds. “And none of those things are true, either.” 

For Michelle Cyca, living with her parents, husband, and their two-year-old in the home Cyca grew up in was a smart financial decision, and a good personal one. Right when Cyca and her husband were deciding where to live when they had kids, Cyca’s parents were preparing for retirement, and experiencing declining mobility and some chronic health conditions. Moving in together felt like the best option for all involved. Over the course of the pandemic, that became especially clear: Cyca and her husband handled grocery shopping and errands when it was less safe to go to stores. 

“The best thing, by far, is how much they’ve gotten to see my daughter,” Cyca says. “Every morning when I take her to daycare, my dad is waiting outside to see her off.” 

What Cyca touched on is something many communities know to be true: Communal living, with the right resources, respect, and boundaries, can be emotionally and practically beneficial. A report by Generations United found that those living in multigenerational households cited enhanced bond among family members, increased ease of caregiving, and improved finances for at least one family member among benefits of their living situations. 

Credit: Minette Hand

Just as moving out is only a milestone if it is personally meaningful to you, returning home is far from the state of “arrested development” that those who don’t take financial, cultural, and personal circumstances into account often portray it as. For some, it is an opportunity for living situations that are accessible and fulfilling. 

For Kai, living with their 82-year-old grandmother over the past few years was “definitely one of the most healthiest and fulfilling times in my life,” Kay says. It was a decision they made when Kai moved away from Michigan, where they attended school, “to be closer to Black, queer, and trans-affirming folx,” especially given that they were tired of living in and around neighborhoods that did not feel safe or affirming for them. “I am also someone with schizophrenia and people are genuinely scared of what that means, on top of being in a Black body,” Kai says. 

They also receive disability at the expense of a limited earned income, meaning the “three times the monthly rent” standard for renting is a barrier — as is the added effort of looking for housemates or needing references. The structural ableism and racism embedded in housing markets impacts living choices, too: Roughly seven million renters with disabilities pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent and are more likely to face eviction, according to the Center for American Progress. This disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic renters. LGBTQ+ people, and especially LGBTQ+ young people of color, who are at higher risk of unstable housing as well. 

When Kai first moved in with their grandmother, the duo worked to establish communication and trust in their household. They also traded off financial responsibilities for more of a caretaking role in the household, which allowed them to save money. While Kai recently opted to move into their own place, they still visit their grandmother several times a week to watch Hallmark movies, cook and eat together, and run errands. “I am reclaiming my spaces and identities now that I am living on my own,” Kai says. “I definitely miss my grandma, however.”

In young adulthood, there is so much more to home a list of benchmarks to check off a list. There is value in any living conditions a young person chooses — and that includes the conscious choice to defy outdated timelines on when one “should” move out, and gain independence, stability, and fulfillment living alone or with others. It’s not just about location, or being the only name on a lease. It’s the choice of where to live, who to live with, what that person needs moving forward, and what stands to transform the moving milestone for the better.

Sometimes, following your own timeline serves as a chance for independence and self-discovery all its own.“I found that feeling ‘behind’ in the norm of Western living was actually beneficial in reassessing my goals,” says Kai, who emerged from their experience with a joyful sense of what communal housing could be — as well as the stability that makes home feel like home.