What Do So Many Live-at-Home 20-Somethings Mean for the Future of New York City?

Moving home is hard to do.

Moving home is hard to do.

There has been much hand-wringing over the so-called “Boomerang Generation”—the many 20- and 30-somethings who have returned to their parents’ homes, either unable or unwilling to live independently. There is an uneasy sense that this is not how things should be, that there is something unseemly about an adult in the prime of his or her life sleeping in a childhood bedroom, something unsettling about the fact that so many in a generation cannot even manage to rent a studio apartment, let alone make a down payment on a home with a white picket fence.

The phenomenon, nonetheless, appears to be as intractable as it is undesirable, an unhappy consequence of the recent recession colliding with larger economic shifts: the erosion of the middle class, stagnant wages, rising housing costs and staggering student loan debt. It is also, as a recent New York Times story points out, increasingly common: one in five people in their 20s and early 30s live with their parents, 34 percent rely on their parents for rent and a startling 60 percent of young adults receive parental financial support. To be financially independent is now to be in the minority.

The aftershocks of such a change will, of course, be felt far beyond the families grappling with awkward post-collegiate homecomings.Though the news stories on boomerangers have, up to this point, largely focused on the domestic drama that arises when adult children return home—everything from different eating habits to the difficulties of dating—the trend has much broader demographic implications.

Indeed, the lack of financial independence among 20 and 30-somethings could radically alter the social, creative and economic composition of cities like New York, which are dependent on the geographic mobility of 20-somethings—the steady influx of diverse newcomers who maintain not only the city’s vitality, but also, arguably, its very viability.

In a country obsessed with the fable of the self-made man, New York has long been its shining mecca, a place where it is notoriously difficult to make a go of it, but the opportunities vast, ambition rewarded, hard work and talent more important than the circumstances of one’s birth. The tricky part of that equation is that one must make it to New York in order to make it in New York and this has, in recent years, become increasingly difficult for those of limited financial means.

New York has always been a city with daunting barriers to entry, of course, though at least until recently, there were an abundance of affordable apartments in rough and distant neighborhoods, side jobs to be worked, luxuries to be sacrificed. These days, sacrifice is still a requirement, but it is not always enough. Jobs in the service sector, which for years supported both starving artists and recent immigrants as they pursued loftier goals, no longer suffice. Waiting tables, making coffee or clerking at a bookstore—the ways in which countless New Yorkers financed their dreams, often don’t even finance themselves anymore; second or third jobs are now de rigueur for those in the lowest-paying professions.

Moreover, affordable housing that was once available to newcomers in the form of SROs or boarding houses like the Salvation Army’s Park Evangeline (now the ultra high-end 18 Gramercy Park), have all but vanished. And the city’s current stock of affordable housing is effectively reserved for existing residents in the form of lotteries (New York City residency required) or rent-stabilized units that are primarily located through social networks or the assistance of a broker, whose services require a multi-thousand dollar payout.

Such unaffordability, taken together with the fact that more and more young adults rely on their parents to pay the bills, means the demographics of the city will inevitably shift. Rather than a magnet for the most talented and ambitious, well-heeled and the hungry alike, the city will increasingly become a destination for a select few, many of them from families wealthy enough to subsidize their existence here. The small percentage of self-supporting young adults, meanwhile, will be more and more made up of those who work in finance, consulting, and law; all important industries, but by no means the only important ones. The creative industries, for example—a fundamental piece of New York’s rise and continued relevance—have long drawn their strength from a mélange workers of different classes and backgrounds, and on the unexpected, exciting results such convergences produce.

Children from families of modest means are frequently only able to take advantage of one type of parental subsidy—a place to sleep in the family home—marooning them in the towns and cities where they grew up which do not, in many cases, offer the best job opportunities. And, as anyone who has ever applied for jobs in a distant city knows, it’s mightily hard to get call backs from potential employers. Indeed, the bulk of people who relocate for work to New York and other global cities are either recruited or have the financial capital to float for a few months as they play the job market.

Meanwhile, if one’s family can afford rental assistance, one can move wherever the opportunities are greatest, dividing cash-strapped 20-somethings into two classes—those who can approximate the lifestyle of the financially independent and those who are actually physically trapped. Over time, the lack of geographic mobility will undoubtedly impact economic mobility as well.

As Richard Florida recently illustrated in Atlantic Cities, U.S. migration patterns are already influenced by class and education, with high school dropouts moving to very different places than college grads. And not only are less-educated Americans bypassing places like New York and San Francisco for second-tier cities that were more liveable given their poorly-paid fields, but they are actually moving out of cities like New York and San Francisco. Even those lucky enough to have grown up in pricey, space-starved New York may find it difficult to move home if their parents are working or middle class. In a place like New York, families may rent out empty bedrooms or downsize to smaller apartments as their children grow up.

As the percentage of young New Yorkers living on financial assistance from their parents becomes greater, so, too, may the barriers to entry for the unsubsidized set, as employers are able to hire workers for less than it costs to live in the city.

Which is not to say that working- and middle-class kids won’t move here in the future, but that the city may in time transform into a post-collegiate stomping ground of the elite and a mid-career destination for everyone else: the place you go after you’ve built up savings and a resume elsewhere and can afford the price of admission. Incidentally, given the advantages enjoyed by those who have been building their personal and professional networks here for years, it may prove difficult for later-in-life arrivals to close the gap.

In the Times, Adam Davidson asks whether “living with your parents is a sign, as it once was, of failure? Or is it a practical, long-term financial move?”

The truth, of course, is that it can be both a practical, long-term financial move and a failure. An act that may well protect a young person from financial ruin and allow him or her to pay off student loans and save money—for a big move, starting a business, any number of important things. But it is one that must, in most cases, be exchanged for the kind of immediate opportunities that often prove central to one’s career trajectory. As Mr. Davidson writes, “We are living not simply in an unequal society but rather in two separate, side-by-side economies. For those who can crack the top 20 percent, there is great promise.” Cracking the top 20 percent is difficult, of course, and one’s chances of doing so are far better when one is living in a major city rather than in a small town, spending the pivotal decade following college working in one’s desired field rather than marshaling the resources to do so.

Which raises the question of just what might be lost, by New York and society at large, in the delayed or never-realized potential of young adults who are barred from moving here by economic circumstances. For it is not only the stuck-at-home 20-somethings who bear the consequences of stymied dreams. In The Atlantic, Richard Florida has argued that “means migration—the movement of highly educated and highly skilled people—is a key factor that shapes which cities will thrive and which will struggle.” And New York may well suffer if it becomes inaccessible to the young and impecunious, a place where entry and opportunity is increasingly constrained by the circumstances of one’s birth and the amount of money one receives from parental coffers each month.