Tipping Point

Nearly 100,000 millennials in the Sacramento area live at home. Why your kids can’t move out

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Mary Thammavong is a 29-year-old electrician who helped build Golden 1 Center arena. But she’s never lived away from home, and although she’d love to discover herself as an adult by living alone, she isn’t sure if she can afford it yet.

Wendy Tram, a 24-year-old accountant, still lives in her parents’ south Sacramento home, and sees no reason to leave until she gets married.

And Robert Larson, a 27-year-old North Highlands maintenance worker living in his childhood home, marvels at how fast a decade has passed since high school. But time is in fact passing: He just noticed his first gray hairs.

Twelve years after the Great Recession first pushed young adults back to the nest, the number of 20-somethings in the Sacramento area living with parents has hit unprecedented numbers. A review by The Sacramento Bee of U.S. Census Bureau data shows some eye-popping numbers.

About 40 percent of people between the ages of 21 and 30 in the four-county Sacramento region lived with their parents or grandparents in 2017, according to the data. That figure does not include college students.

The number – 96,000 – has nearly tripled here since 2000 and includes residents in Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado counties.

The Sacramento data mirror state and national trends and suggest young Sacramento residents are struggling more than ever to make their way in an economy where steady, well-paying jobs are not as abundant as they were for previous generations, and where housing availability is at a crisis point amid increasingly escalating rents.

The stakes are high in the capital city, which is trying to broaden its economy to attract young entrepreneurial minds, and to provide more opportunities for young Sacramentans in lower-income neighborhoods.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says the city must invest in creating both job and housing opportunities for its young residents with funds from the recently voter-approved Measure U sales tax, although the city has not yet made formal plans for how that money is expended.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers, meanwhile, this year added several billion dollars in new housing funds to the state budget.

The Sacramento economy has been on the mend since the recession eased in 2011, with a 10 percent larger workforce today than in pre-recession 2007, according to state data.

But the recession, the deepest in generations, left scars on the economy that are likely to hinder young workers for years and have contributed to income inequality, especially among young adults, says Stanford sociologist David Grusky, who oversaw a study this year by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality entitled “Millennial Dilemma,” which looked at education, workplace, health care and other issues.

“A host of economic dilemmas are hitting millennials all at once,” he said. “The most troubling is the rise of extreme inequality. If you win as a millennial, you win big. If you lose, you lose big.”

The Pew Research Center defines millennials as people born between 1981 and 1996, now ages 23 to 38. Millennials represent the largest population cohort in U.S. history. They are followed by Generation Z, the group born after 1996 whose oldest members are now 22.

“Gen Z is going to experience these trends in even more extreme forms,” Grusky warned.

Scrambling in a ‘gig’ economy

That emerging “gig economy” requires more workers to jump from one temporary job to the next, sometimes cobbling together several part-time jobs at a time.

Census data show that 69 percent of Sacramento young adults who live at their parents’ house have a job. About two thirds of those with a job worked at least 30 hours a week, year-round.

But they weren’t making much: The median earnings of those with a paid job was just $20,000 in 2017.

Among those who worked full-time, year-round, median earnings were about $26,000. The most common occupations among employed young adults living with parents were stock clerks, cashiers, retail salespersons and drivers.

For some, those economic conditions can feel overwhelming, making it hard to focus on a route forward. Robert Larson is among those.

“I’ve spent 10 years not knowing what I am doing with my life,” he said.

Larson, about to turn 28, lives with his parents in their North Highlands home and works as a property assistant and janitor, where work cutbacks recently dropped his wages from $17.50 an hour to $15 – and cut his hours as well.

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This is Tipping Point, our new initiative focused on telling the stories of the Sacramento region’s evolution. We have formed a team of reporters and editors who will write weekly stories focused on the challenges and opportunities in the region. We have more in the works.

Another team of journalists are organizing community forums to open a conversation about how we avoid the mistakes of San Francisco and Seattle, where progress for a few came at the expense of so many.

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He just got a degree from Sierra College in Rocklin after going to school on and off for years, but it was in art, something he doesn’t see himself doing as an occupation. He recently signed up for an electrical apprenticeship program and is hoping that this may be his permanent path.

He pays for his car and phone, and gives his parents money at times to help with household expenses. He has a girlfriend who also lives at home with her family, and together they have started talking about their next steps in life.

Larson does not, however, feel a strong need to distance himself from his family. His extended family is close. His cousins live with his grandmother in the neighborhood. He’s happy with his parents; he’s just not happy with his place in life.

“There are days I feel like I just graduated from high school yesterday,” he said. He recently made a new discovery. “I have a couple of gray hairs now.”

College not a panacea

The Bee review found that young adults of all education levels live at home, but more often it’s people without a college education. In Sacramento, of those local young adults living with parents or grandparents in 2017:

  • 19 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree
  • About 9 percent had not graduated from high school
  • 40 percent had only a high school diploma
  • 25 percent went to college but didn’t get a degree
  • 8 percent stopped school after earning an associate’s degree

The data suggest a college degree is not a sure bet, and lately it has backfired for some students who went into debt to pay for suddenly skyrocketing tuition during the recession.

Zachary Bleemer, Berkeley-based lead author of a 2017 Federal Reserve Bank analysis of why millennials continue to live at home, says debt is a major reason.

It’s a “double-whammy,” Bleemer said. “Tuition goes up, and with it, their student debt.”

The California State University system undergraduate tuition has doubled in the last decade. The average debt of Sacramento State graduates in 2017 was $20,000, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Some young adults find themselves at home after they decide their university training did not lead them in the right direction.

Austin Holzman recently quit his Bay Area pharmaceutical job and moved back to his parents’ Elk Grove home to go back to school. It’s the right call, the 26-year-old says, in his quest for a more satisfying career.

The 2015 UC Davis graduate in biotechnology worked in pharmaceutical research and manufacturing for three years, but felt he was “stagnating.” He has been taking classes at Cosumnes River College since, trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life.

While Larson feels some stigma living at home, Holzman sees it more as a common-sense move that allows him to recalibrate.

“I don’t feel isolated or singled out by doing so,” he said. Several of his friends also are living at home. His parents, especially his mother, would like him to find a short-term job soon, but they are “generally pretty chill,” he said.

It’s becoming less and less realistic “for folks to leave at age 18,” he said.

Housing crunch, and high rents

In one way, today’s family configuration has a familiar look. Pew Research notes that the percentage of people in their late 20s now living at home is similar to the percentage after a similar environment in 1940, coming at the end of the country’s decade-long Great Depression.

The number of 20-somethings living at home dropped notably in the decades after 1940, then started creeping up again when the economy worsened in the 1970s, says Dowell Myers, a housing expert and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California.

But the recent mid-2000s recession has prompted a significant housing shortage, as well as steep rent and home-price hikes, creating what Myers calls massive congestion in the California housing market. Sacramento in particular saw some of the highest rent hikes in the country for several years before easing off a bit last year.

The average rent in the city of Sacramento this summer is nearly $1,400 for an average-size apartment, typically with one bedroom, Rent Cafe reported in July. That is up 6 percent in the last year.

Carmichael average rents were among the lowest, at $1,160, according to Rent Cafe, a real estate data analyst. In Folsom, average rents hit $1,800.

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“The last ones in are the ones getting screwed, the people least able to deal with that,” Myers said. “It’s like the freeway is congested and traffic is backed up on the on-ramps. Young people are backed up in their parents’ back bedroom.”

Some data show that more millennials who are doing well financially are also finally starting to get into the home-buying market in the last few years. Some of them are Bay Area émigrés who could not afford housing there.

That’s not an easy jump, though. Seven years ago in the Sacramento region, nearly 80 percent of house sales were less than $300,000; that’s dropped to 17 percent, according to data compiled by Ryan Lundquist at the Sacramento Appraisal Blog.

The median sales price in the Sacramento region hit $384,000 in May, according to the Sacramento Association of Realtors.

The circumstances are less than ideal for many parents as well.

“There is added stress in not having the ‘empty nest’ I was looking forward to, as well as other issues of this lifestyle,” said Howard Parkert of Folsom.

His son, age 20, tried community college, but has not continued with it and is working a job that pays just a bit more than minimum wage. Parkert wrestles with the question: “What do we owe him?”

Parkert says his wife, of Chilean heritage, believes it is fine for young adults to live with the family, but Parkert is concerned about when his son will “launch” into full adult life. They get along well with their son, but Parkert feels the need to gently press him to save money for a possible move out.

“My wife and I would like to downsize, but is he going to be ready (to move out),” he said.

She’ll leave home when she marries

Culturally, living at home is easier now than in past generations, USC professor Myers said. The culture gap between Baby Boomer parents and their adult children is smaller than it was between the boomers and their parents. Surveys show that many young adults say their parents are among their best friends.

One potential downside, Myers says: “Once you get adjusted to (living at home), you may not move out when you could move out.”

Accountant Wendy Tram, who is Chinese American, says some of the stay-at-home lifestyle may be cultural. She is 24 and could easily afford to move out of her parents’ home, but she wants to save money so she can buy a bigger house for her family in the next few years. She may not move away from the family house, she says, until she gets married.

“It’s more so that if we’re not married, we’ll just stay at home kind of thing because there’s no need to move out,” she said.

Tram works as an accountant for the state after getting undergraduate and masters degrees from Sacramento State. Her 28-year-old sister, who also has a full-time job as a special education teacher, lives at home as well, as does her 23-year-old brother, who just graduated from college.

“I do feel like there’s a stigma where people think that I’m not really that independent,” Tram said. “But I would like to say I’m quite financially independent.”

Perfectionism and self-doubt

A recent TD Ameritrade survey found that young adults are motivated to succeed, and in many cases expect to do better financially than their parents. But a study published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2018 found that young adults in college suffer from more of a perfectionist streak than prior generations, and more often compare themselves to others, which in turn can lead to emotional stress.

Karyn Nasca of Sacramento, now 31, moved out at age 20, but returned a few years later after a relationship breakup and after being unable to find consistent work. She struggled emotionally as a result. She has been slowly rebuilding: she got an associate degree and a part-time job making $13.65 as a package handler in a distribution center.

She is now a graphic design student at Sacramento State, and appreciates the support and closeness she gets from being with her family. She wants to move out. But, she says, that likely won’t happen for another two years, after she graduates. She wants it to work this time.

“I need to make sure that I have a solid job position to start off with, so I can hit the ground running and not drown in debt,” she said.

She created her own opportunity

The tough economy, though, has highlighted strength and resourcefulness among young adults, taking some into careers they did not expect to follow.

Mary Thammavong, 29, daughter of a Laotian immigrant, has always liked to work with her hands, although she needed years to figure that out. After talking to a career counselor, she joined an electrical apprenticeship program, and after several years of training and work, is about to rise to journeyman level, making her among the minority of women in a male-dominated occupation.

She says she has learned that she belongs. She was on the construction crew that built Golden 1 Center a few years ago and feels a sense of accomplishment at the end of each workday.

So far, though, she has never lived outside the family home, a three-generation household that she shares with her dad, an older brother, his wife, their child and her younger brother. Thammavong recently began to make enough money to move out on her own, and feels a yearning to do so. For the last month, she’s been looking for an apartment that would allow her to bring her large dogs.

On one hand, it means she would no longer be a financial contributor to her family. On the other hand, moving out would offer her something she is eager for and curious about.

“I would like to see how I would be on my own and how I would grow,” she said. “It would give me a chance to see who I am.”

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Phillip Reese is a data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State. His journalism has won the George Polk and Worth Bingham awards, and he was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
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