I lived with my parents for years after I graduated university. I held a full-time job, but didn’t pay any rent; instead, the money went to my nest egg. And, furthermore, I actually liked living at home, because I enjoy the company of my parents. Clearly, I’m a monster.
Polite company, as the saying goes, doesn’t talk about money. After all, it brings up a host of differences, among them literal, in terms of how much money we each have, and philosophical, what we should do with said money. Nothing carves people into separate camps like the concept of living at home after a certain age. It brings up imagery of free-loaders, sad-sacks, and spinsters: the logic going that there’s a correlation (or, even causation) between how early you move out on your own and the idea of self-sustainability. Those who stay at home are evidently stuck in arrested development: not moving out means not moving on.
This has always seemed to be a romanticized view of growing up, not to say a culturally-specific one. We can tell it is cultural, because of how social shaming is used: the fear that no one will want to date or marry a person who lives at home is a Western concept, as generally someone who moves out before being able to buy a home is considered a spendthrift in Eastern culture and thus undesirable. The West, in its delight of individualism, favours its young to survive on their own as soon as possible. The East, in its focus on the collective well-being, believes in fortifying the family unit. The difference in philosophies is evident in grandparents: my grandmother, for example, lived with us for a long time because it was my father’s duty as her eldest son to take care of his mother.
I can see benefits to both models: like a first job or a first romance, one’s first apartment is a chance to thrive autonomously. Sure, there are the basics like learning to pay bills or making meals, but the bigger lesson is the opportunity to think about how one wants to live a life. For a while, I was embarrassed that I love spending so much time watching television or playing videogames; but, in the end, as an adult, these are my choices to make, just as people who obsess over a football team, a type of wine, or a certain plant are free to do. I balance philosophical choices like what I desire from social fabrics with practical ones such as with what activities do I choose to fill my time? If you spend your entirety of life wrapped in the cocoon of your parents, these choices become much more difficult.
Difficult, and yet not impossible. The big assumption proponents of moving out make is that there is no growth involved with living at home, that instead it is a cozy womb to do nothing. While this can be true for some, the assumption breaks if adult children become part of the decision-making family unit. Given that many people expect to one day have a family of their own, it surprises me that culturally we don’t see the value of staying with one’s family as an adult. In our family, having three generations in one house did create some tension, but also provided great support with perspectives spanning a century of living.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to discount the savings that come with living at home, especially when we consider that the job market has fundamentally changed for this (and future) generations. No longer can 20- and 30-somethings expect jobs for life as our parents did and research has shown that, after a recession, new workers who start with depressed salaries will make less over their lifetime compared to those who began careers in better times, even if the economy picks up. Let’s not forget growing tuition, rising housing costs, and a changing culture in what is considered essential, such as smartphones and microwaves. The deep end that young adults are being thrown into is getting deeper by the minute and the solution isn’t to double-down on what worked before, doing so would be a form of performance bias.
Instead, it’s time to realize that there’s no one correct path to take: it really does depend on one’s circumstances. Of course, that’s an unsatisfying response when we’re accustomed to judging one another’s choices. Privilege is often wielded as a weapon, but there’s always the necessity to calculate the magnitude of said privilege. Yes, living with my parents is a form of privilege (at least from a Western perspective) but that doesn’t make it a wrong choice. The argument that not everyone gets to live with their parents is a flimsy one: if this became part of a cultural standard, people would adapt their behaviour. Westerners have done this before, if we remember our agrarian roots.
I’ve gathered another reason people get upset over the issue of living at home is the idea of taking advantage of family resources to bolster one’s finances: Western society loves to believe that we should all start equal, able to achieve anything we put our minds to, our accomplishments thus tethered to our level of discipline; whether this is still true or not, it explains in part why people who come from a privileged place of money are seen to be cheating.
There will always be someone with more money than you and someone with less–the cascade of privilege stretches far beyond one can see–and when people begrudge one another over finances it becomes an arms race to who survived on less. Our family came from humble beginnings: my grandmother used to sell porridge on the streets to schoolchildren so that she could feed her own children, while also holding down a job washing dishes. Is this what people want: some form of misery porn?
In the end, I think this will come down to a generational divide. In some ways, it is like the “walking barefoot to school” story popular culture likes to skewer so much. What’s important to remember about the argument over living at home is that mostly it’s filled with blanket statements that don’t hold true to everyone. Not everyone who lives at home is lazy. Lucky, maybe. Not everyone who lives on their own becomes financially literate.
When we think about why many people aren’t as savvy with their finances as they should be, we should be asking why many people in the country don’t understand the concept of compound interest or how to properly leverage their assets; instead, many can’t see the forest for the money trees.