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Family Matters article

December 1993


A recent Australian Institute of Family Studies study looked at the reasons why some young people had not left home by their early twenties and why some had left and returned, sometimes more than once. The author reviews what the effects are of family resources on decisions to stay with parents, and what such trends mean for parenting.

The circumstances and the timing of young people leaving home change with social, cultural and economic developments. In Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving home was closely associated with marriage, employment and education. In particular, the shift to earlier marriages between 1940 and 1970 meant that young people left home earlier during this period. In the 1970s, the age at which they left remained about the same, but their reasons for doing so changed. As early marriage declined, the drop in those who left to marry was matched by those who left to form de facto relationships, and a greater percentage than previously, particularly young men, left to be independent (McDonald 1993).

Further changes occurred in the 1980s, with dramatic increases in the numbers of young people staying on at school to Year 12, increasing numbers undertaking post- secondary education, the virtual disappearance of full-time employment for 15-19-year-olds and, later in the decade, as the recession hit, rising unemployment for 20-24-year-olds. Now, in the early 1990s, young people are more likely to be living with their parents than previously, more likely to be partly dependent financially on parents even if they have left home, and more likely to leave and return home at least once as their circumstances change. At the 1991 Census, 40 per cent of 20-24-year-olds lived with their parents, compared with 35 per cent in 1979.

These are the broad trends. But as well as being related to broader social and economic factors, decisions about leaving home should be seen in a family context because the experience of going or staying is essentially a personal and individual experience. For young people and their parents, whatever the circumstances, emotions are rarely neutral. Young people leave home willingly or reluctantly. They leave with confidence, hope and a sense of adventure. They leave with trepidation and anxiety, in fear, disgrace and despair. They may be encouraged out, helped out, pushed out, run out. They may be clung to, cried over, exhorted to stay. When the young leave, parents sigh with relief, weep for the loss, fear the worst, hope for the best. Some parents experience all of these reactions.

For most young people, leaving home is a process occurring over time rather than a single event, and is a decision rarely made on the spur of the moment. Planning, imagining and fantasising about the experience before taking the step is often valuable preparation for the real thing.

This article is about staying rather than leaving. In view of the trend for young people to stay at home longer, and to leave and return, information from the Institute's 1990 Becoming Adult Study is drawn on to explore the reasons why a group in their early twenties had not left home, why some had left and returned sometimes more than once, the effect of family resources on decisions to stay with parents, and what the trends mean for parenting.

The respondents were 138 young adults interviewed at age 23; they had also been interviewed seven years previously when they were aged 16. At the time of the second interview, 27 per cent of the women and 49 per cent of the men were living with parents. These figures are consistent with estimated national figures for 23-year-olds living with parents in 1993 (that is, 25 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men). The majority of respondents who had left home at least once did so in the late 1980s. The median age for males first leaving home was 19.5 years and for females, 18.8 years. Around 50 per cent had returned home at least once.


The majority of 23-year-olds who had not yet lived away from home were young men, in particular, men who in their adolescence were from two-parent families. Thirty-three per cent of men (compared with 16 per cent of women) had never left home and 45 per cent of men from two-parent families (compared with 15 per cent from stepfamilies and 26 per cent from sole-parent families) had not lived away from home.

Gender and family type at age 16 (for males) were the only clear differences between those who had and had not left home. It might be thought that those who never left were those who stayed in education (both secondary and post-secondary), but this was not a statistically significant factor. Nevertheless, there was a trend for more young people who had never left to have completed Year 12, and to have some post-secondary qualification.

Young adults with at least one parent from a non- English-speaking-background were more likely to stay at home than those with parents who were born in Australia or another English-speaking country (40 per cent compared with approximately 21 per cent). This is consistent with the fact that sons and daughters from families of non-English- speaking backgrounds tend to stay at home until they marry more so than those from Anglo-Australian families.

The quality and cohesion of family life at age 16 did not distinguish the two groups, although commonsense suggests that at least a minimal level of harmony between parents and offspring is likely to exist for those who decide to stay. The socio-economic status of families when the respondents were 16 was not a factor, nor was there any difference between self-esteem of those who had left and those who had not. It is not surprising then that the group was quite varied, and, as far as the young men were concerned, as many came from low socio-economic status families as high.

Those who were still at home were less likely to be in a relationship than those who had ever left. Nevertheless, 55 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women who had never left had a partner, and several planned to marry shortly.

In general, there are advantages and disadvantages for young adults who continue to live with their parents, and while they stay, we can assume that the positives outweigh the negatives. Two quite strong positive motivations not to leave home are apparent in comments from young adults when they were asked what were the good things about living at home. The first was the support, security and company which living at home provided. Women more than men tended to add comments about love and caring in their family.

Anita said she liked living with her parents because of the security and because: 'My parents are always behind me if I need them, which is good. I can turn to them for advice whenever I need it.' Darren enjoyed the security and having someone in the house all the time; Jake liked the fact that he was able to do things 'as a family'; Mark liked knowing there was always someone to talk to. Tracey said that she liked being able to talk to her parents if there was anything bothering her, adding: 'They're a fun couple to be with and I enjoy their company quite a lot.'

The other positive factor was that living at home was cheaper and offered an opportunity to save. Almost one- third of respondents mentioned this aspect, but they generally added that there were other advantages also, such as support, security or getting things done for them; sometimes all of these were mentioned. Tony's first response was: 'The best thing is being spoilt - I'll wash, I'll do anything but not ironing. It's a money saving device at the moment, that's one of the best things.' Then, more thoughtfully, he added: 'It's nice to be around your family as well, I'm sure I'd miss it. I do when I'm away - home never seems so good as when you're away.

Living at home almost always means that some services are provided - meals, washing, ironing, housework and general tidying up. More men than women mentioned having things done for them, with some men merely accepting this as a benefit and others expressing more appreciation. This is not surprising given that, although some gender roles have changed, women are still expected to do more of the housework, cooking and cleaning, and are more ready to be responsible for these tasks.

Perhaps we need to focus on why these young men should leave rather than seek explanations for why they haven't left. A closer look at their circumstances suggests that most had a relatively straightforward and trouble-free transition from adolescence to adulthood. In the earlier interview, when they were aged 16, their families are variously described as supportive, well organised, close knit. They were not without conflict, but were generally seen as stable. The personalities of sons in these families varied; some were described as quiet and reserved, others as energetic and outgoing, but they all had relatively easy relationships with their parents.

The major motivations for young people to leave home are for independence, because of conflict, or to live with a partner. If none of these are very strongly felt and there is support, a reasonable amount of independence and freedom available at home, and some financial advantage in living at home (as there almost always is) there is no driving reason to leave. This appears to be the case with the majority of young men living with both parents.

This is not to say that they and other young adults still at home don't find some things difficult, with about two- thirds mentioning constraints on what they could do, lack of privacy and occasional value clashes. Sometimes the constraints were self-imposed, rather than openly articulated by parents. Lawrence explained: 'There will always be a certain amount of restrictions, it's hard to define it, just the difference of having them around compared to if you're on your own. If you're on your own, you can be a bit more relaxed in the way you do things - it doesn't matter so much if you're sloppy. You can get away with a bit more. Overall, I have to compromise in certain areas.'

Christine sounded rueful: 'It's sort of still having to be home at a certain time - although I don't have to be really, I still feel that I do. I feel that they kind of wait up for me on weekends.' 'Do they?' asked the interviewer. 'No, they don't but I sort of think that they do. Because I live under the same roof I still feel responsible to them, but that doesn't really create any problems.'

Jason was basically pretty happy living at home, but he had learnt to avoid one topic - pre-marital sex. His parents are Catholic and their 'outmoded views' sometimes made him angry. He has a girlfriend to whom he feels a fairly strong commitment but he feels he cannot reveal the sexual nature of the relationship to his parents.

Pia lived with her widowed Italian mother. She would like to leave and knows it is important for her independence, but she realises it is going to be very difficult to make the decision and a struggle for her mother to accept it. For Pia, the good things about living at home are security, the warmth of a family and the unselfish care and love provided by her mother; the difficult things are restrictions on her freedom and having to curb expressing her opinions.

The 'never-left-home' group included young adults with low, mid and high levels of self-esteem in relatively equal proportions; level of self-esteem did not distinguish non- leavers from leavers. Nevertheless, in some cases, lack of self-esteem and lack of confidence in the world are likely to be important contributing factors to not leaving home. For example, Dennis has valid reasons for living with his mother because he is studying, 'strapped for money', and feels some responsibility for his mother, but there are indications that he would find it difficult to cope on his own. He feels his lack of friends and social awkwardness quite profoundly.


Just over half of the respondents who had left returned at least once. Of the returnees, almost half of the men and one-third of the women came back to the parental home twice and one in six women returned more than twice. Young (1988) found that returning home was associated with leaving home at an early rather than a later age, with unemployment and with early school leaving. This suggests that financial difficulties and inadequate job skills bring young people home again.

In the Institute study, financial difficulties certainly played an important part. In the first return home, financial problems (45 per cent), reasons to do with job or education decisions (34 per cent), housing problems (25 per cent) and broken relationships (21 per cent) predominated. (The percentage is greater than 100 as respondents often gave more than one reason.) Financial problems, housing problems and broken relationships were the main reasons for a second return.

'Financial problems' was self-defined so it could include a range of circumstances, from severe economic hardship because of unemployment or illness, to being able to cope but not live in comfort away from home. Leanne tended towards the former end of the continuum. She grew up in a sole-parent pensioner family, left school and home at age 16, and has had a series of clerical jobs since. She said she and her family had always been poor and she accepts it as a fact of life. She has returned home, she thinks, six times, almost every time because she was having financial difficulties. Support between her mother and herself has not been one way. Now that Leanne has married, she's been able to reciprocate by having her mother to stay when she was in trouble.

As a result of a small exploratory study in California, Hartung and Sweeney (1991) suggested that there were at least two very different categories of households where young adults had returned home, and that they coincided generally with different levels of affluence and economic comfort of parent and child. There were those who returned out of severe economic necessity, having failed in their own eyes as adults due to job loss or relationship breakup, and those who returned because home was a comfortable retreat from adulthood and its responsibilities.

Although both sets of circumstances may also lead some young people to return home in Australia, the Institute study suggests that many returnees don't fall into either of these categories. They return for a range of practical and emotional, as well as financial, reasons. An interesting finding concerns 'leaving for independence', commonly cited in the literature as an important reason for leaving home. Some comments suggested more a sense of wanting to try out living away from parents, to experiment and see what it's like, rather than a driving need to be independent. For example: 'I was invited to share a house and it seemed like time to move on'; 'I left to see what it was like out on my own, to get a taste of what it would like in the future'; and 'to give it a go, get a bit more freedom'. If leaving is a trial period for some, it is not surprising that they return and leave again.


Family resources may influence whether offspring stay, or leave and return. Resources may be material, such as money and goods, or non-material, for example care, assistance and support. Both were mentioned by the young adults in the Institute study. De Jong Gierveld, Liefbroer and Beekink (1991) further distinguish between parental resources which are transferable and not transferable to young people. For example, transferable material resources can include income from employment and possessions, while examples of non-transferable material resources are washing, cooking and cleaning services provided at home. Non- transferable non-material resources are such things as the care, community and understanding provided in the parental home; transferable non-material resources are parental values and education, or more broadly, certain 'cultural capital' (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) which advantage or disadvantage young people.

However, there appears to be no simple relationship between parental resources and leaving home. The particular way in which family finances influence leaving or staying is difficult to predict. High family income could be used to help young adults leave early, for example, by parents contributing to the cost of accommodation for a son or daughter who couldn't sustain these costs alone. On the other hand, high family income might mean that plenty of resources are provided at home resulting in few incentives to move out. Low family income may similarly delay departure (young people's contribution to household income is needed) or encourage it (there are not enough resources to go around). Hartung and Sweeney's (1991) interviews with parents who had offspring living with them suggest also that parents and children live together because they can afford no other alternative.

In the Institute's Becoming Adult Study, information about family income is limited to circumstances when young adults were aged 16. Nevertheless, it is likely to be a reasonable measure of family resources during their adolescence, particularly as only 12 per cent of 23-year-olds said that their family's financial circumstances had been unstable since they were aged 16.

Overall, the level of combined family income did not seem to influence whether young adults had ever left; nor did the earlier measure of family socio-economic status which took into account the education level, job status and income of both parents. Approximately one-quarter of young adults from both low and high income families had never left home. An American study by Avery, Goldscheider and Speare (1992) found that, overall, increases in family income showed little impact on simple leaving home. However, if the reason for leaving is considered, then household income has an effect when young people leave home to get married but not if they leave for 'premarital residential independence'. The greater the household income, the less likely the young adult is to leave home via marriage.

Similarly, de Jong Gierveld, Liefbroer and Beekink (1991) found that different parental resources encourage leaving for different reasons. They suggest that young adults are most likely to leave home for reasons of freedom and independence if they come from families where parents have few resources that cannot be transferred but many resources that can be transferred. For example, if meals, washing and cleaning services are not supplied in abundance and there is not a great deal of intra-family care and community, but there is a relatively high family income and parents are well educated, then young people are more likely to leave for autonomy (than marriage or work or study).


An earlier article in Family Matters reviewed some of the research concerning parents and young adult children living together (Hartley 1990). On the whole, this research pointed to potential conflicts between parents and offspring (for example, concerning different lifestyles and expectations), the likelihood of parents having to alter some plans for the future because their children were dependent for longer than expected, and some potential positive outcomes of mutual support and understanding.

What has not been very much explored is how parents see their role in relation to older children living with them. What parts, if any, do they retain of 'being a parent'? What happens to various elements of the parental role, such as support, guidance, control? How easy or difficult is it to shift to a non-parenting role while their offspring still live at home?

Answers to these questions depend on many factors, including the expectations of both parents and their offspring. A large proportion of the parents of today's young adults married young, and left home to marry or for work or education; relatively few of them left to be independent; when they left school, they faced a relatively stable economy and most were assured of a job (McDonald 1992). Many did not expect their young adult children to be living at home well into their twenties. Nor did they expect them to be facing a future where employment and the long-term stability of personal relationships are surrounded by uncertainty. Parents are having to adjust. Their own experience of growing up, and how their parents 'parented' them as young adults is not always an appropriate guide.

Personal style and approach to parenting when children were younger is also likely to be influential. Some parents are able to give up the authority and control inherent in parenting when their children are quite young; others probably never give it up. Most lie somewhere between, gradually realising that their children are able to make their own decisions.

Another factor in how parents respond is likely to be whether they believe their sons and daughters will eventually leave. For example, the leaving home picture for 23-year- olds in the Institute study is not complete, and the great majority are likely to leave in due course. The relationship between parents and offspring includes an expectation that they will live separately in the future. If this doesn't happen, a new adjustment will be required.

Many respondents spoke of very close relationships with their parents, but it was quite common for this to depend on having lived separately from parents. A recurring theme was the better appreciation and understanding of each other's point of view when they had been able to move away from their parents and establish an independent life.

This is not to say that young adults living at home did not also have close, positive relationships with parents. However, it is possible that some will get on better when they do leave home. We did not speak with parents in the Institute study, but young adults who were living with their parents were at the very least relatively satisfied with the arrangement and were prepared, in varying degrees, to make compromises and accept some restrictions for the benefits of support, security, and inbuilt lower costs. Others viewed their circumstances much more positively than this. Personal support figured strongly in young adult's list of 'good things' about living with parents, and no doubt many of them benefit from the opportunity to make the transition to adult responsibility with parental backing.

Several studies have found that parents too are generally not dissatisfied with living with young adult children. For example, Aquilino and Supple (1991) found from the National Survey of Families and Households in America that the majority of parents describe co-residence (with 19-34- year-old offspring) in mostly positive terms. However, unemployment and financial dependency caused conflict, and the return of divorced and separated offspring with children decreased parents' satisfaction. We do not know very much about how conflict and dissatisfaction actually affect parental behaviours such as support, guidance and control.

It was apparent from the Institute study that parents did find it difficult to give up some aspects of being a parent and, in the eyes of their sons and daughters, behaved inappropriately - for example, by waiting up for them at night, showing an excessive interest in their movements, and not allowing certain behaviours.

Some ambivalence and uncertainty about parental roles is hardly surprising. Young adulthood generally requires an extension of shifts in the relationship between parents and their offspring begun in adolescence, as well as a substantial letting go of some aspects of 'being a parent'. This is perhaps more difficult to achieve, for both parents and their offspring, while living under the same roof. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some families achieve the shift relatively smoothly.


  • Aquilino, W. S. and Supple, K. R. (1991), 'Parent-child relations and parent's satisfaction with living arrangements when adult children live at home', Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol.53, pp.13-27.
  • Avery, R., Goldscheider, F. and Speare, A. Jr. (1992), 'Feathered nest / gilded cage: parental income and leaving home in the transition to adulthood', Demography, Vol.29, No.3.
  • de Jong Gierveld, J., Liefbroer, A. C. and Beekink, E. (1991), 'The effect of parental resources on patterns of leaving home among young adults in the Netherlands, European Sociological Review, Vol.7, No.1, pp.55-71.
  • Hartley, R. (1990), 'The never-empty nest', Family Matters, No.26, pp.67-69.
  • Hartung, B. and Sweeney, K. (1991), 'Why adult children return home', The Social Science Journal, Vol.28, No.4, pp.467-480.
  • McDonald, P. (1992), 'Families and young people in Australia: issues for research', Family Matters, No.31, pp.22-25, April.
  • McDonald, P. (1993), Family Trends and Structure in Australia, Australian Family Briefings No 3, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Young, C. (1988), Independence, leaving home and the transition to adulthood of young people in Australia, Paper prepared for the 4th National Conference of the Australian Population Association, Brisbane.