Sally never expected to find herself back in her parents’ house. But at 30 years old, she was living with them, in the bedroom her sisters shared growing up, in Queens, New York, trying to figure out what to do next and why her plan had fallen apart. Sally was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States with her parents and two younger sisters when she was three. Her parents married in their midtwenties, and Sally thought she would get married around the same age. She’d fallen in love with her college boyfriend, at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and they had gotten engaged. At the time, Sally wanted to live in Paris. She had dreamed of doing so since her first trip there as a teenager, when she’d been immediately entranced by the city. She learned French and had traveled there two more times, once with her fiancé. But her fiancé never wanted to live anywhere other than New York. Sally thought he might change his mind, and in the meantime, they’d have their wedding. “I was like, Oh, okay, I’m going to get married, and it’s going to be cool,” Sally says. Marriage was the start of her adult life, and she was willing to put aside her dream of living in Paris to stick with the plan and make sure it worked.
Then she and her fiancé broke up. They were fighting a lot, mostly about him being distant, and also about money. Sometimes Sally can downplay her emotions, especially when she’s reacting to something negative that happened, and ten years after she and her fiancé ended their engagement, she’s casual about the decision. They talked about how if they were already married, they would go to therapy and figure out how to communicate better, “but because we were just engaged, it was easy to be like, ‘Well, this isn’t working, so whatever, okay, I guess we’re going to do something else now,’” she says. Still, she admits, “it was a terrible time in my life.” She was letting go of her fiancé, their partnership, and how she saw her future.
She didn’t decide to go to Paris immediately. She went to work as usual. She worked in digital marketing at Latina magazine, but she was sad and unmotivated every day. Maybe everything felt heavier because she was mourning the end of her relationship, but she kept imagining what her career would look like if she stayed in New York and continued this career path, and hated the trajectory she saw. She pictured herself plodding along as a manager for another year or so, then being promoted to director, and maybe eventually being the boss. She didn’t want to do any of that. So she quit and bought a ticket to Paris. She planned to be there for three months, a test run for moving permanently.
She stayed with a friend in the 6th arrondissement, and life in Paris was exactly how she fantasized it would be. She spoke French, went on walks with friends, hung out in cafés, and visited the Musée d’Orsay and the Père Lachaise, the cemetery where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried, and one of Sally’s favorite places in the city. She returned to the United States, and after saving some money from hosting writing workshops and working for a college‑prep company editing students’ admission essays, decided to go back to Paris—this time, on a one‑way ticket. Another friend said she could stay with him for free as long as she needed, and she hoped to host a writing retreat in Paris, so she’d have some income if it took her a long time to find a job. She advertised the retreat on her blog, and a few readers responded that they wanted to attend. She thought she’d planned as well as she could.
When she got off the plane in Paris, she felt great. She had a sense of being at home whenever she was there. And now she was excited to make the city her real home. But after only a few weeks, her friend needed to move out of his apartment; Sally would have nowhere to stay. She tried to book an Airbnb for cheap—she hadn’t found a job and was running low on money—and instead found one where she could stay for free, in exchange for helping the host edit the book he was working on. Sally didn’t let herself be nervous about the arrangement. This was a way to remain in Paris. “I was mostly like, ‘Oh thank goodness, a bed,’” she says. “That was all I needed at that point.”
But a few days into the arrangement, the owner of the Airbnb woke her up and told her she had to go. He decided that he didn’t want her to stay for free anymore; he was going to charge for the room again. She did the only thing she could think of. She rolled her suitcase across the Seine to the Père Lachaise cemetery. On her previous trips to Paris, she’d gone there to honor the dead and, at the same time, be thankful she was alive. This time though, she sat among the tombstones and trees, with her suitcase next to her, and sobbed until dark, when the cemetery closed. When Sally left Paris, she ended up in a place she thought she’d never be going back to: her parents’ house in Queens.
The majority of thirtysomethings whose stories I share in my book But You’re Still So Young moved back home with their parents at some point in their twenties or thirties. One did it after a breakup. Another after his wife lost her job. One was trying to save money to buy her own place. The fact that out of a random sample of young adults, most of them had returned to their parents’ homes after they thought they were gone for good is consistent with what the national statistics show: In 2014, for the first time, living with one’s parents became the most common living arrangement for Americans ages 18 to 34, overtaking living with a romantic partner. Black and Latinx young adults are more likely to live at home, but the trend is similar for all major racial and ethnic groups.
The rise in young adults residing with their parents isn’t only due to economic instability. The percentage did start to increase during the Great Recession of 2008, but continued to climb well after it was over. By 2018, about 25 million adults ages 18 to 34 were living at home, per a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Census Bureau.
In 2014, for the first time, living with one’s parents became the most common living arrangement for Americans ages 18 to 34, overtaking living with a romantic partner.
In part, the increase is due to people marrying later — on average, at 30 for men and 28 for women (men are more likely than women to live with their parents). But education, or lack thereof, also affects people’s ability to have their own homes. In general, people who have college degrees — and the pay and job security that comes with them — are less likely to stay with their folks. Those who don’t are more likely to have trouble finding work that pays them enough to live independently.
The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the number of young adults returning to their parents, either because of their college campuses closing, prolonged unemployment meaning they could no longer pay rent, or simply wanting the emotional security, and in some cases childcare, from being near family. A recent analysis of government data by the real‑estate website Zillow indicated that about 2.9 million adults moved in with a parent or grandparent in the spring of 2020, if college students were included.
But, despite how common this arrangement is, there is still a lot of fretting about it. We picture the full‑grown adult getting high on the couch while Mom scurries around doing the laundry. We see Zach Galifianakis playing the man‑child Alan in The Hangover. We think, Isn’t it time for them to get their own place?
The judgment that living with your parents is not okay comes from the fear that delaying leaving home means delaying adulthood, and sets back your psychological development, says Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent development and a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Older adults look at younger people and bemoan the fact that they don’t have steady jobs, aren’t married, or don’t have kids. Steinberg explains the main reason for this criticism: Supposedly, not taking on these adult roles slows our psychological growth. “So if we’re talking about something like the development of responsibility, if you’re not entering in career‑related employment until much later, maybe that’s slowing people’s ability to be responsible,” he says. “Or, an analogous argument would be that because you’re not getting married, there’s some stunting in the development to be intimate with other people.”
Steinberg, however, doesn’t agree with any of this and sees no evidence that delaying adulthood impacts psychological development. “I think there’s a lot of misguided hand‑wringing,” he says. Instead, he thinks that there could be benefits to delaying adulthood. Not settling into long‑term roles and relationships could lead to a longer period of the brain growing and improving, with new experiences creating new neural pathways (the connections in the brain formed by repeated behaviors that help make us who we are).
During adolescence, studies show the brain changes constantly, what’s known as “plasticity.” The new experiences you have shake up the brain and help us develop our habits, talents, and emotional responses. This is how we realize we’re capable of more than we thought we were, or that there are different ways to go about the world. This stimulation, however, slows as we age. Once we reach adulthood, our brain circuits are mostly set — they can be adjusted slightly, but not completely remade. But if your brain is kept busy with new, not‑so‑easy‑to‑conquer experiences for longer, it makes sense that it would keep on developing. And the more time the brain avoids being static, the more likely you are to discover new skills and wants and, in general, evolve and grow.
Today, the idea that you would be washed‑up at 30 seems ludicrous, but in the '60s and early '70s, it was a popular sentiment. During the protests against the Vietnam War, and for civil rights and free speech, one of the defining slogans was: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Anybody over 30 was too old to understand what young people were fighting for. Being younger than 30 meant you could be idealistic and unattached; free to follow, and organize your life around, whatever intrigued or inspired you at the moment. Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston observed these student protests and, more generally, that people in their late teens and early twenties weren’t rushing to take on responsibilities in the same way their elders had. There was “a growing minority of postadolescents [who] have not settled the questions whose answers once defined adulthood: questions of relationship to existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle,” he wrote in the American Scholar in 1970. Keniston called what was happening unprecedented — previously, this rootlessness had been found only in the “unusually creative or unusually disturbed,” he wrote. But today young people “can’t seem to ‘settle down.’” They have “the feeling of absolute freedom, of living in a world of pure possibilities.”
But turning 30 was the end of this opportunity to do whatever you wanted. In 1970, the oldest baby boomers were 24. They transitioned to thirties that looked like they had in previous generations. They got jobs, married, bought houses, and had kids. At least on the surface, they were the same kind of adults their parents had been. In 1971, the novelist John Updike wrote in the novel Rabbit Redux about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s midlife crisis, “What you haven’t done by thirty you’re not likely to do.”
Before then, no one had identified that adults — ancient already at 30! — might be having doubts about their lives.
Once their lives were set, however, thirtysomethings often didn’t like being in them. In 1979, divorces hit a historical high point, when 22.6 marriages out of every 1,000 broke up, according to researchers at the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
Author Gail Sheehy pinpointed this dissatisfaction in her bestselling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, which was originally published in 1974. She noticed it in herself first, when she had her own misgivings with who she was at 35. She’d married at 24, had a daughter four years later, and divorced her husband four years after that. Her daughter was now 7, and Sheehy was a successful magazine writer, but suddenly all of what she was doing didn’t seem like enough, as if she’d stopped evolving herself too soon.
“Some intruder shook me by the psyche and shouted: Take stock! Half your life has been spent,” she wrote in Passages. “What about the part of you that wants a home and talked about a second child? Before I could answer, the intruder pointed to something else I had postponed: What about the side of you that wants to contribute to the world? Words, books, demonstrations, donations — is this enough? You have been a performer, not a full participant. And now you are 35.”
She used her own experience and interviews with 115 middle‑class men and women ages eighteen to fifty‑five to identify a period in their thirties that she called “the Catch‑30,” when people suddenly wanted to be more than they were or tear up their life and start over. “I think I was very fortunate,” Sheehy told the Christian Science Monitor, “in having the profession I do because in part I think every writer who does a book about serious subjects is working out some of their own demons.”
Before then, no one had identified that adults — ancient already at 30! — might be having doubts about their lives. Sheehy gave them a voice and described the agony of suddenly reassessing all that you thought you had been responsible by building in the first place, with real sympathy. The book was on the New York Times Best Sellers list for more than three years.
“Men and women alike speak of feeling too narrow and restricted,” she told People magazine in 1976. “They blame all sorts of things—their choices in their 20s of mates and careers. But what it boils down to is that choices perfectly suited to the 20s are no longer enough. Some inner aspect was left out that is striving to be taken into account . . . Suddenly one is less concerned with what I ‘should do’ than what I ‘want to do.’"
At her parents’ house in Queens, Sally started to think about how she was always planning her life. It was what she did. First, she thought she’d be married and have a corporate job. Then she was going to move to Paris and get away from all of that. But none of her plans had worked. Plans didn’t mean things wouldn’t fall apart. So she decided to stop. No more plans. She was just going to do what she wanted and trust that it was going to work out in some way, without her attempting to put up any sort of safety net.
“I became bolder,” she says. “What did I have to lose?”
One of the first things she did was start dating. She and her ex‑fiancé had met in college, so she hadn’t dated as an adult. Now she wanted to date widely without any limits on who she was trying to meet or how many guys she would go out with; she just wanted to be open. “I was like, Well, now I’m free,” she says. “I’m not engaged. This is a very different life than the one I was planning on, so I’m going to date everyone.”
She went out with guys she met on the dating site OkCupid, old friends she had always had crushes on, her favorite waiter at her favorite pizza place, and a police officer who came by to investigate a possible break‑in at her parents’ house. She wanted to have fun getting to know these guys. Turning one of them into her boyfriend wasn’t important to her.
“I became bolder,” she says. “What did I have to lose?”
She began working on another business she’d been dreaming of: She wanted to start a company to assist small‑business owners with whatever they needed. She could build business plans. She could help with websites or other marketing. She could answer emails from customers. Or she could do all of those things.
After six months, and signing up a piano teacher and a leadership coach as clients, she had enough money to buy another plane ticket, this time to visit her sisters in California. One lived in Los Angeles, the other in San Francisco. She didn’t make any plans beyond, I’ll spend two weeks in San Francisco, two weeks in Los Angeles, and see what happens.
She’d been to Los Angeles before, but this was the first time she considered that it could be her home — in particular, the jacaranda trees, with their pale blue flowers, made her feel calm and safe. As it got closer to when she was supposed to leave LA, she decided she wasn’t going to. She started to establish her life there, which included thinking that she wanted to be in a relationship again. She started musing about who her perfect person might be, using what she liked about who she had dated in the past to figure out her ideal. “I was like, If I do want a relationship, who the hell do I want to be in a relationship with?” she says.
She wanted someone creative, but not obsessed with work; kind and chivalrous, but also fine with her opening her own doors and carrying her own bags. This person should be extremely into her, but also have their own interests and passions she wasn’t part of. “It was a real Goldilocks situation,” she says. “I was looking for someone just right.” This person didn’t have to be her next fiancé. She wasn’t trying to force anything. I just want one person who’s my consistent person, she thought.
Jay was the first person she went on a date with in LA. They met on a dating app called Coffee Meets Bagel. He’s 32, grew up in Detroit, and was working doing postproduction for a movie studio. She liked him enough on the first date to go on a second one, which is when she really started to think he might be the person she was looking for. He wanted to have fun, was open‑minded, and “really nice, sweet, and kind,” Sally says, “which I don’t think are words I would use to describe many of the people I’ve dated.”
They’d been dating nine months when Sally’s apartment lease ended. Jay said she could stay with him while she looked for another place. She thought it would be a month or two, but after three months she still hadn’t found a new apartment. In the meantime, Jay had started thinking about quitting his job at the movie studio to write and direct his own films, which meant he’d be living off savings until he started making money from filmmaking. She needed a place to live; he needed financial support.
“Did you want me to live here?” Sally asked him. “I think that would make sense,” he said.
Jay quit his job, and Sally started paying the rent for the entire apartment, which she could do since she was starting to make more money from her various projects. Sometimes, she worries that her income isn’t sustainable — and feels bad for always changing what she’s doing (her sister now co‑runs her business with her — they have six clients, so that occupies most of her time, so she edits fewer student essays and isn’t trying to host any more retreats). It’s also hard to explain to other people what she does. But she doesn’t want to stop and go back to working for someone else. So she told herself, Who cares? It feels good to me.
“I really got super grounded in like, I’m just going to keep doing this,” she says. At the end of the year, she realized she had paid the rent for a whole year. “I felt really proud,” she says. “I haven’t done that in a long time.”
As she got closer to turning 35, Sally started thinking about going back to Paris. It would be her first trip there since she’d been stranded four and a half years ago. She thinks about the city often, “but my body remembering that experience delayed any desire to go back,” she says. She started to think it might be okay if she went, then started to actually want to.
She began researching: How much are flights? Where could I stay? She found a cheap flight for the week before her birthday, but she didn’t book it. She needed a check from a client first. Last time, when she came back from Paris, she promised herself that before she went again, she’d have at least $7,000 in her checking account. Briefly she thought about asking Jay to go with her, but when she asked him what his work schedule was, he was going to be in the middle of shooting a movie during when she had planned the trip. So she told him, “I’m going to Paris without you, just so you know.”
In the weeks before she left, she started to feel nervous. She told some friends who knew what had happened during the last trip that she was returning, and they understood that it was a big deal. Some of them said they’d pray for her. Her best friend told her, “It’s going to be great.”
As soon as she got off the plane and started to make her way through the airport and into the city, she started to feel better. I know this place, she thought. She knew the airport, the way to border control, and the escalator in a tube that would take her to the RER train to the city. When she started to walk to her hotel in the Montmartre neighborhood, she knew those streets too. She spent her days by herself, going on a lot of walks and eating a lot of baguettes. She hesitated about going back to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where she’d spent the day bawling after she’d found herself with no place to stay on the last trip. But she’d been there every single time she’d been to Paris and, each time but the previous time, being there had made her appreciate her own life. So one day she told herself to start walking and to keep going until she got there. On the way, she got a ham sandwich, some prosciutto, and her favorite dark chocolate Petit Écolier cookies, then found the spot she likes among the hills and grave markers, near her favorite sculpture of a chair that’s tipped on its side. She ate her lunch. “It felt like I was coming back to center,” she says. ●
Excerpted from But You’re Still So Young by Kayleen Schaefer with permission from the publisher.
Kayleen Schaefer is a journalist and author of Text Me When You Get Home and the bestselling Kindle Single memoir Fade Out. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, and many other publications. She lives in New York City.