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Paul Taylor is a senior fellow and former executive vice president at the Pew Research Center, where he oversaw demographic, social and generational research. Taylor is the author of The Next America,[…]

Paul Taylor, Executive VP of Special Projects at the Pew Research Center, discusses the phenomenon of boomerangers: millennials who come back home to live with their parents after college. Taylor also posits a few theories as to why millennials are one of the least trusting generations. Paul Taylor is the author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown.”

Paul Taylor:  One of the economic and cultural changes that we’ve seen pretty dramatically in the last few decades is the share of young adults who never leave home even after they go through their schooling or at some point in their young lives boomerang back home.  And we estimate than more than 40 percent, nearly half of all millennials have either never left, never launched if you will or at some point have boomeranged back home.  Now if you can’t find a job, if you’re underemployed, if you’re in a non-paying internship, all those sorts of journeys – mom and dad’s home ain’t a bad place to hang out, you know.  The refrigerator is usually stocked and you don’t have to put coins in the laundry.  And interestingly I think there was, in my generation there was some stigma attached to that, you know.  Get on with your life already for goodness sake.  You know, we’ve done some surveying of both the parents of such young adults and young adults themselves looking for tension within those homes, looking for conflict, looking for stigma.

And frankly we don’t find that much.  In part because it has become more commonplace and people sort of understand, yeah, that’s the nature of the slow passage into adulthood.  You know, there are societies in the world and southern Europe, particularly Italy comes to mind where culturally young men have been living with their mothers, you know, into their thirties and forties – bamboccioni is big baby and mammismo is mama’s boy.  And some of this is cultural.  Some of this is clearly economic and Europe frankly has the same challenges with not enough jobs for young adults that we have.  So a lot of the world is going through this.  I think the silver lining is that there don’t seem to be a lot of stresses.  Again, I speak as a baby boomer who came of age in the sixties and there was a whiff of generation war in the air.  It was a time when there was, you know, women’s rights movement, civil rights movement, anti-war protests.  There was a feeling that the older generation had screwed everything up and thank God here we were to make everything right.  There was almost a sort of a finger of accusation pointed at the older generation.  You see virtually none of that within the younger generation.

In some ways I have a sense from our surveys that young adults have sort of seamlessly migrated from being the children of their parents in many cases to being the roommates of their parents.  And they have similar interests and they text each other and they get on with their lives and there’s a certain sort of resilience there.  That’s a snapshot of a moment, you know, in this slower passage to adulthood.  Again, I don’t think we yet know fast forwarding a decade or two down the road what that will mean, what that will mean for the family formations of these young adults.  I suspect what it does mean is that the intergenerational interdependence that we see in these families is likely to last.  There’s no question that families stay closer to each other further into the life-cycle than they have indicated in the past.

And when we talk about generational personalities let’s acknowledge up front we are deep into the realm of generalization and stereotype.  And they’re – within any generation there is many differences between individuals as there are across generations.  And the idea that if you’re born in one year you’re a member of one generation and therefore have one personality.  If you were born a year later you’re another generation.  That flies in the face of commons sense obviously.  Having said that you can look at broad patterns and we can see this with our attitudinal data, our voting behavior, our economic circumstances and again accepting the caveat that these are big generalizations.  There are a number of things that do stand out in terms of the persona of this generation.  One of them is a wariness.  There is a classic question in social science about what we call social trust and the question goes very simply.  Generally speaking would you say most people can be trusted or you can’t be too careful when you’re dealing with other people.

We, the Pew Research Center and other research organizations have been asking this question for 40 years and we’ve never seen a generation that is as low on social trust as millennials are.  So only about 19 percent of millennials the last time we asked this question say yeah, most people can be trusted.  It’s a very interesting finding because millennials are also a play nicely with others generation.  You know, we all got that report card in kindergarten, plays nicely with others.  I think millennials must have all done very well on that.  How do you square these two seemingly opposite characteristics?  Frankly I’m not sure I can but let me put forward a couple of interesting theories.  To start with the social trust finding, one of the things that sociologists know and psychologists have observed is that population, groups within a population that feel vulnerable for whatever reason tend to be low on social trust because they’re not well fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.

So if you think about the millennial generation and you think about their demographic characteristics, a large share are nonwhite and a large share are at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.  In both cases, you know, that places them or may place them in an attitude of vulnerability.  And therefore you can’t be too careful.  I think it’s possible that the fact that they navigate, they do so much of their social interaction online, may lead to a wariness.  It’s one thing to have face to face friends and those sorts of relationships where you can – you have a history with people.  You can read body language.  You can do all the things that friends tend to do.  When you have relationships that are entirely mediated through an online setting it’s more complicated and I think people come around to the view that not everybody’s exactly who they say they are online.

A final possibility is the way the very nurturing parenting norms that raised millennials.  Millennials came of age in the nineties and oughts, an era of global terrorism, of domestic school shootings, Columbine, 9/11, a lot of pretty horrible things that are particularly disturbing to parents.  The worry about strangers online, online predators and all the rest.  Social psychologists would say that they have been raised in a very protective nurturing environment.  There is a kind of an everybody gets a trophy quality to the way millennials have been raised.  You’re precious.  It’s a mean and difficult world.  I need to protect you.  Which may then be picked up by the children raised this way as you better be careful, you better be wary.  Again I wouldn’t push this too far but one real world consequence that is already observable among the millennials is in their economic behaviors. They appear to be a risk averse generation.

Now maybe that’s because they don’t have money, they don’t have the economic security that leads to a freedom to take risks.  Or maybe it’s the way they’ve been raised.  One of the data points is, you know, Fidelity and other companies that manage 401Ks and kind of have a sense of the investment habits and patterns of millions and millions of people who work have noticed in the last five or six years that the young adults in these 401K programs when they look at their investment choices and, you know, the advice to the young adults is, you know, you’re young, you have time, be aggressive, you know.  A stock portfolio over the long haul is supposed to do better, et cetera, et cetera.  Many young adults are not taking that advice and I think you can see that in their consumption habits as well again, either because they don’t have the money or they don’t want to take on the debt.  They’re not buying cars, they’re not buying houses and I think there is a kind of wariness that cuts across a lot of the dimensions of their lives.


Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton