By now you’ve surely heard about the big jump in young adults living at home since the Great Recession. The bad news, revealed in a recent study by two Federal Reserve Board members, is that the situation is due less to economic conditions—which seem to be gradually improving—than to debt from college loans carried by 20-somethings—which shows no signs of decline. Many people seem to be moving back in with their parents to save money so they can pay off their debt more quickly.

Well before the most recent economic downturn, researchers looked at young people’s sense of their identity as adults after moving back home, with results published in Sociological Forum in 2008. Through in-depth interviews with 30 “boomerang” young adults, they found that the potential for growing up while living at home looked different for men than women.

When it comes to one commonly recognized marker of adulthood—providing for one’s own financial needs—the surveyed group doesn’t appear very grown-up. Twenty-one of the 30 were working full-time, but only eight—five women out of 14 women and three out of 16 men—were contributing to their families’ finances. A few were actively hostile to the notion. One described bringing a bag of purchases from the mall and being confronted by his mother, whom he owed money: “See, I try to weasel out just like any other son or daughter would do on their parents, you know.”

But others insisted on paying rent, or contributing to other family expenses, even over the objections of parents who preferred that they pay other bills first.

The young people also generally didn’t contribute much housework, although on average the women helped out more than the men. While that support for the household could be seen as a way of taking responsibility, some women reported that it recreated patterns from childhood as they found themselves seeking approval from their mothers for doing a good job.

Another way the young people reported asserting their sense of adulthood was by resisting demands from their parents that they considered too controlling. This seemed to work for many of the young men in the study, but not for the women. For one thing, the types of control asserted by parents varied by gender. Sons were more likely to clash with parents over employment while daughters more often ended up in conflicts around their social and romantic lives. This points to, in the researchers’ words, “persistent concerns over women’s purity and men’s provider abilities.”

Both young men and young women talked about resisting their parents’—particularly their fathers’—attempts to control their decisions, but only the men reported that holding their own in these conflicts contributed to their sense of themselves as adults. “This may be due to the differential nature of decisions young men and women were attempting to make, parental responses that varied for sons and daughters, or gender disparities in how conflict is experienced,” the authors write.

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Sociological Forum, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 2008), pp. 670-698
Wiley