When 33-year-old Carolina Wong graduated from Florida State University in 2006, she had a plan. She would take her degree in advertising and her love of good design, work hard, and become a graphic designer.
The realities of the working world, and her industry, quickly altered her best-laid plans: Two years as a marketing assistant and then account executive steered her into a more marketing-oriented role, work that both "drained her soul" and wasn't very well-paying.
Wong hit a breaking point, decided life was too short to do work she disliked, and made a move that is increasingly common among her millennial peers: She decided to move home, live with her parents, and reset. According to Pew Research Center analysis, 15 percent of 25- to 35-year-old millennials were living in their parents' home in 2016, a much larger share than members of Generation X, born 1965 to 1979 (10 percent), and the Silent Generation, born 1925 to 1945 (8 percent), at the same age.
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"I didn't feel like I had any other option," Wong says. She moved back with her parents in Hollywood, Florida, and ended up staying for five years, aiming to rekindle her love of film and pivot to a new career path.
Wong remembers hesitating at first; despite her close relationship with her parents—which was only strengthened by moving back in—she was unsure about the move.
"That was a big struggle from me," she says. "I didn't want to feel like I was leeching off them. At first I dreaded it. I remember crying to my mom and discussing why I didn't want to do it."
Now, at age 33, Wong has a much different viewpoint after living with her parents, in many ways mirroring how social expectations and views about "boomerang" kids coming back home has shifted in just the last decade. During her time at her parents' house, Wong was able to save enough for a down payment and buy a home, located eight miles away in Sunrise, Florida. She also parlayed experience working for local production houses on commercials into a full-fledged career as a stylist, costumer, and costume supervisor designer for film and television; after working on shows such as The Walking Dead in Georgia, she's on the cusp of buying a second home in that state, and will soon own two homes as she navigates a more permanent move north.
Like many her age, Wong saw moving home as a route to more financial security in an increasingly insecure economic environment. She's even counseled younger coworkers who are agonizing over making a similar choice, assuring them that it's not a bad idea.
"If you have somebody who's willing to help you, don't be embarrassed by it," she says. "I think it's a smart decision if the help is there. There are a lot of people who don't have that kind of help. It's like a stepping stone; it's not a permanent thing."
For a generation of young adults facing the hurdles of a changing and insecure economy, there are also the barriers of rapidly rising urban housing costs and staggering loan debt (education debt alone, which has doubled since 2009, has caused a 35 percent drop in millennial homeownership, according to a New York Fed study). Add the hangover of the Great Recession and the idea of moving back home has gone from Exhibit A of this generation's ostensible entitlement, laziness, and narcissism to something more accepted, nuanced, and less stigmatized than it was even a few years ago.
Last year, Pew research found, for the first time ever, living at home with parents had become the most common living situation for adults age 18 to 34. As census data suggests that young adults moving back home is more and more common, and many researchers believe it's a trend that's here to stay, it's increasingly important to see the changes for what they represent, especially in terms of the real estate and housing markets, rather than as a sign that the kids simply aren't alright.
"We don't hear that stereotype of the lazy millennial discourse in the media like we did five or 10 years ago," says Dr. Nancy Worth, a researcher at the University of Waterloo who helped compile Gen Y at Home, a 2016 study of young adults living at home in the greater Toronto area. "Now, you're hearing how smart, strategic, and lucky young people are for staying home. It's seen as the smart, strategic choice."
As challenges with affordable housing and a lack of starter homes persist (inventory has plunged 40 percent since 2012), the millennial and Gen Y response—including living at home to save money and reduce debt in efforts to afford a home—can be seen as a strategic reaction to larger economic shifts.
"It's not a reflection on the millennials; it's a reflection of where we are as a society," says Derrick Feldmann, a researcher who has conducted extensive studies on younger adults as part of the Millennial Impact Project.