Stuff to know

At 22, Mallory Huston isn't living with her parents so she can sleep till noon, eat all the food and hog the television.

She's a former high-school valedictorian, a well-spoken graduate of Capital University, an accountant for Ernst & Young and the fiancee of a law student.

By choice -- not necessity -- she lives in the three-bedroom South Side ranch where she grew up.

For Huston's generation, living at home can be a financially desirable, socially acceptable option -- not the failure route of slackers too immature to live on their own.

"I don't think I've ever gotten a negative reaction to it," she said. "No one's ever said, 'That's terrible.' A lot of times, it's 'I wish I could have done that.' "

In 2007, 28 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived with their parents, according to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research project paid for by the MacArthur Foundation.

The figure represents a 25 percent increase since the 1960s, when children were often eager to leave home as soon as possible.

Parents and children are more likely to live together in an economic downturn, said Jordan Matsudaira, a Cornell University economist who has studied the correlation between employment levels and residences of young adults.

But a weak job market accounts for just the occasional uptick, not a long-term shift.

"I really don't think that the economic factors have contributed much to the long trends at all," he said. "I think it's much more a story about changes in social norms."

Marriage

Researchers point to changes in marriage as the primary reason that more young adults are home-bound.

When troops came home from World War II, 20- to 22-year-olds moved away from their parents so they could move in with spouses.

"A lot of people rushed into marriage in the 1950s, and, for the most part, those marriages didn't work out," said Frank Furstenberg, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist who heads the Network on Transitions to Adulthood.

A wave of divorce produced children cautious about marriage. Since the postwar period, the average age of marriage has climbed to 25 for women and 27 for men (from 20 and 22).

"The process of settling down is a more deliberate one than it used to be for most people," Furstenberg said. "It involves more education, more trial and error in the job market, more consideration of a marriage partner."

Huston will be ahead of the curve when she marries long-time boyfriend Shane Black in 2010.

By then, she hopes to have better-established her career and earned enough money to buy a house.

The circumstances were different for Mallory's parents, Sherri and Mark Huston, when they married and moved out at 20 and 21.

"That was the main goal in life: to leave home," said Sherri, 48. "If there's one thing I could change, it would be to have stayed at home longer, to save money."

Family

One generation ago, the relationship between parents and their children often involved clashing worlds: different politics, lifestyles, clothing, music.

Fred Thomas recalls leaving his Georgia home at 19 after an argument with his parents.

"They wouldn't let me go to the B.J. Thomas concert," said Thomas, who lives in Westerville.

"I had cash in my pocket, so I left in a huff."

Three decades later, Thomas and his wife, Pat, eat dinner most nights with their 23-year-old daughter, Danielle, who has been content to live at home since graduating last year from Miami University in Oxford.

"There's no bad part of being here, really," said Danielle, who is working two part-time jobs while she awaits a full-time teaching position.

"We understand each other; we get along."

After all, she's part of a generation raised by soccer-coaching, homework-helping parents -- whose families tend to be smaller and closer than in decades past.

Inviting grown children to live at home is just a continuation of that parenting style, experts say.

"There's been a change in the job description of being a parent: It extends longer," Furstenberg said. "It always did -- implicitly, in times of emergency -- but I think it's now routinized."

The Thomases never questioned Danielle's desire to return home.

"It just seemed like the natural course," Pat said. "It just wasn't feasible for her to go right out on her own."

Financial choices

Societal changes aside, the decision to live with parents usually involves some financial factors.

The average college student owes $17,000 in loans at graduation and might pay $5,000 in first-apartment startup costs, said David Morrison, founder of the Philadelphia market-research company Twenty-something Inc.

So parents are slower to enforce the cutoff from their bank accounts.

According to a recent survey by the AARP, 45 percent of adults 19 to 27 said they had received financial help from family or friends during the past year.

And spending more time at home can further ease the pressures for young adults.

"It gives them flexibility in the sense that they don't have to take the first job -- but the best job," Morrison said.

After graduating in May from Otterbein College in Westerville, Ashley Young of Gahanna is still searching. She hopes to work in advertising in Chicago or even France.

For now, Young is living with her parents in their two-bedroom condo and working part time as a cafe barista.

"I'm hoping that the new year means new positions," said Young, 22. "I'm not freaking out."

Her parents aren't, either. Like the families of Huston and Thomas, Willie and Mary Young aren't charging their daughter for rent, food or other expenses.

"She has to get a good leg up on life before she's thrust into it," said Willie, 64. "There is a safety net. She doesn't have to worry about getting the definitive job immediately."

Social implications

The economy might not be the reason young adults live at home, but it might keep them there longer, researchers suggest.

In the past year, the average stay at home has increased from between six and 10 months to between 12 and 18 months, according to surveys by Twenty-something Inc.

The trend might be frowned upon by the generations of Americans who didn't grow up that way.

"There's a thought that kids moving home are taking two steps back instead of moving forward," Morrison said. "There's this cultural push to get children to begin their lives -- this accelerated adulthood, if you will."

Furthermore, young adults who aren't living independently could experience delays in careers, marriages and parenthood.

But, as Furstenberg pointed out, Americans are living about 10 years longer, too, compared with 1950.

So who's to say when it's time to leave home?

"It isn't as if there's an appropriate standard -- that, if you don't get out of the parental household by age 22, you're a loser," he said. "It's all a question of how parents and children and the larger society define it.

"Some people do get stuck, but many more simply take a longer time to transition to adulthood."