Be it across an ocean, over a state line, or merely down the block, individuals the world over at one point venture to relinquish the aegis of their parents. Innumerable factors take part in one’s final decision to disengage from familial support, not the least of which are the assumed, or adopted, societal norms. Western cultures in general, and particularly US culture, have purported leaving home during late adolescence and early adulthood as though it were the cardinal achievement in transitioning from a child to an adult–indeed, a modern rite of passage. Yet, the profound multiplicity of influences leading to independence are anything but homogeneous. Variation in economic status, and cultural ideals among cohorts, creates an environment that adheres not to the social clock. In reality, departure from the family home is – as it should be – determined by one’s prospective path. In other words, leaving home is part and parcel to the events that do define burgeoning adulthood. Education, occupational pursuits, marriage, and military service are a few common pathways that usher individuals into autonomy. Likewise, these trajectories may espouse extended parental support, depending largely upon cultural beliefs. Without question, detaching the tethers of parental nurturance marks a turning point one’s life; yet, far greater than the influence of a social schedule, or the act of emancipation itself, is the importance of one’s developmental course in propagating adulthood.
Despite the enduring ideology that a specific age should signal flight from the family quarters, a large body of evidence – both current, and historical – seems to suggest otherwise. While approximately 80% of men and 70% of women report an identifiable age “deadline” in terms of formally leaving home, the average age of first time home leavers has been somewhat unstable on a generational scale (Billari and Liefbroer 183). Furthermore, at no time has it reflected the young ages which have been perpetuated by perceived societal norms. In 2012, an estimated 36% of young adults, aged 18-31, took residence within their parental homes, a notable increase from previous decades, and more closely resembling the home leaving characteristics of the early 19th Century (Pew 2014). However, these trends generally reflect a stark contrast in the economic, as well as social, structures of the culture. Earlier cohorts often remained home for a time, while beginning their careers, in an effort to provide financial subsistence to their aging parents. Shorter lives led to the demand for a younger workforce, and, therefore, youths began work earlier and their parents retired at much younger ages. Increases in required education, familial economic standing, and viable years of labor have been the driving forces behind the recent uptrends in home living. As opposed to marriage, university education is most commonly the path that leads modern young adults from home at an early age. Although, a soaring requirement for schooling produced more widespread post-secondary education options and, as a result, a spike in the number of individuals staying home while earning a degree. Moreover, the age at which people chose to marry rose steadily over the decades, lessening the desire to move from home, and military service declined at similar rates, leading to the same end. These are but a few of the common factors that keep well over 50% of 18-24 year-olds from seeking independence (Pew 2014). Social and cultural ideals also carry significant weight in the move from parental support, as do gender and economic environments.
American culture tends toward individuality; therefore, those who have largely adopted American values are more often inclined to leave their family homes at earlier ages. Other ethnic cultures – Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and Native Americans – are notably more dependent upon family structure and generally share more robust collectivist values. Thus, individuals that grow up with a strong appreciation for these ethnic heritages experience more extended periods at home. Additionally, Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics are less often financially well off. Many of these young adults not only lack the economic stability to afford independent living, they less frequently leave home for education, and they routinely remain with their parents to lend financial support to the household. However, as is especially true with Asian and Hispanic communities, the longer that families have been in the US, the earlier their offspring seem to leave home. The mounting abundance with which these collectivist cultures migrate to the US is, in no small part, driving the average age of first time home leavers ever upward. Nevertheless, the US population’s gender imbalance has a somewhat moderating effect on this average.
The number of American men who experience later independence has always been greater than women. In 2012, men were 8% more likely to be living at home into their early 30’s than women of the same age (Pew 2014). This is largely a reflection of women’s greater propensity for marriage. Although, an influx of women entering the workforce, enlisting in military service, and a considerable growth in the number of women choosing independent living arrangements, seem to be drawing the gender gap ever tighter. Nevertheless, women in America continue to achieve autonomy at decidedly younger ages. All of these ingredients merely abate each others’ gravity and hinder any one age from standing precedent over another.
The sheer intricacy surrounding the reach for autonomy not only obscures any definitive understanding of its initiation and its consequences, it all but renders inane the notion of a societal norm or an age-graded schedule for leaving home. What lies at the heart of any young adult’s decision to sever the bonds of parental security is the purpose for doing so, and not the age at which that judgment comes about. For the overwhelming majority of young adults, acquiring freedom is an event that occurs concurrently with the pursuit of their life’s path. Albeit some do move away for no reason other than independence, this is an uncommon and comparatively unsuccessful endeavor. The fact remains that, while journeying toward one’s self-reliance alone is an integral facet of a flourishing adulthood, the true import in the transition lies in the determination and aptitude one develops in following their course. The family home is a springboard, a foundation upon which one builds their life, a moral, ethical, and economical blueprint. One must not be absorbed in the predetermination of an appropriate age for flight but intently engaged upon where they intend to land.
Billari, Francesco C., and Aart C. Liefbroer. 2007. “SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? THE IMPACT OF AGE NORMS ON LEAVING HOME.” Demography 44, no. 1: 181-198. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2014).
Fry, Richard. “A Rising Share of Young Adults Live in Their Parents’ Home.” PewResearch Social & Demographic Trends. August 1, 2013. Accessed: October 16, 2014. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/01/a-rising-share-of-young-adults-live-in-their-parents-home/