Connor, 24, graduated from Penn State in May of last year. It took him five years instead of four to finish his journalism degree, so he has about a hundred thou in student loans. “Scholarship was the ball I dropped more often than work or my social life,” he says. When I spoke to him late last year, he was living at home with his parents, working part-time—30 hours a week—as a blogger. It wasn’t enough to live on, and he didn’t get health benefits. He was sure he could get a different job: “If I wanted to support myself, I would. But I’m lucky enough to have parents who are well off. We’re all just waiting it out for a while.”
The move from Happy Valley back to his childhood bedroom wasn’t entirely smooth. “My dad struggles to get it a little,” Connor says. “He’s an engineer. He went to a military academy. He had a wife and kid by the time he was my age.” When Connor took an unpaid internship a few years back, “He was like, ‘What is the plan?’ I said, ‘I know what the plan is. You just don’t like the plan.’” The unpaid internship grew into a part-time job. If it hadn’t, “I would have gotten a job as a waiter somewhere. I wasn’t going to take something I didn’t want to do.”
Connor rides the train home every workday from the city to his parents’ house in West Chester. He’ll have dinner with Mom and Dad, watch TV with them. West Chester nightlife doesn’t really cut it for him now: “I’m a Farmers’ Cabinet guy. I have expensive tastes.” He doesn’t pay rent or buy groceries, but he does his own laundry. “It’s not like they’re giving me $10 for the movies,” he says.
There are challenges. “I have no option but celibacy,” says Connor, who’s outgoing and athletic and handsome. “I don’t really approach women, even. I’m not going to take someone home and sleep with her in my parents’ house.” He gets away to visit friends on weekends every chance he can. His mom, he says, wants him to text her when he arrives safely. He doesn’t. “I’m 24 years old. I shouldn’t have to check in with Mommy.”
When Connor was still in school, sometimes he’d encounter friends of his parents who’d press their business cards on him: “They’d say, ‘I’m in insurance—call me when you get out of school.’” Connor threw the cards away. He says he’d rather wait tables for the rest of his life than work in sales. Besides, he has a buddy from college who’s made it in L.A., in films. The buddy’s success validates Connor’s approach to life: “You have to have faith in your intangible abilities.”
CONNOR’S A CLASSIC ALL-AMERICAN GUY, CIRCA 2012. He’s also a prime example of the attributes that experts say are crippling him and his peers. He hasn’t proven particularly successful, yet he’s absolutely sure he will be successful. He’s got more than enough self-esteem. And he’s living with his mom.
“I’m astonished, just astonished, that kids are moving back home,” says Barry Schwartz, a longtime psychology professor at Swarthmore College who studies happiness and satisfaction. “My kids never came home once they left. They would have seen coming home to live as an absolute failure—the worst thing in the world.” But it’s part of a continuum, he says: “It’s also astonishing to me that kids are in touch with their parents five times a day on their cell phones.” Those parents, he says, have cocooned their children all their lives. They’re too eager to be their kids’ friends and too reluctant to exert authority. As a result, “They don’t do much to nudge fledglings out of the nest.” Connor can see that in his mom: “She’d like me to leave, but not because she wants me to leave.” He thinks she’d pretty much be cool with him living with her for the rest of his life.
And why wouldn’t he want to? We’ve made home so comfortable. “When you had six or seven kids in a family,” says Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle and author of the campus-sex book Hooking Up, “young people were dying to have their own place. Now they’re living in a big house, not paying any rent, and they can come and go as they please.” Sex is awkward, sure, but young men are having bromances with their guy friends instead, modeling themselves on Entourage, Jersey Shore and The Hangover. “Popular culture in general values singlehood,” says Bogle. “In the 1950s, the stigma was not getting married. Now it’s reversed.”
Bogle mentions the “unintended consequences of inventions” and posits that extended adolescence may be the accidental offspring of the Pill. The upper-class norm now, she says, is not to have kids until you’re in your 30s. The median age of male marriage keeps getting pushed further back—more than three years (which is an eon to sociologists) since 1980, to 28.2. That leaves young men with a long, long stretch of sowing wild oats—while young women tap their feet impatiently. (And not nearly as many people are marrying at all; in 1960, more than half of all 18-to-29-year-olds were wed; today, it’s around 20 percent.)
Bogle thinks Facebook may also be contributing to perpetual boyhood. Prior generations of men, she says, would leave their tight-knit communities of college friends, move to new cities, and become isolated. That made relationships with women more attractive, since women typically organized social life. “Now, Facebook makes it so easy to keep in touch with your old friends, to make plans and coordinate,” Bogle says. Guys can actually do it themselves.
Speaking of do-it-yourself, more than one academic cites porn as a reason young men are content to climb back into the family nest. “When I was a boy,” says Shaun Harper, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education who studies how young men live and learn, “you had to work to find porn. And hide it! It was only available in an underground way.” Today, it’s as close as any website ending in .xxx. Researchers conducting a recent large study on porn and prostitution had trouble finding non-users to serve as a control group. An article in New York magazine last year described how young men have come to expect the “Porn Star Experience” from women, and find themselves faking orgasms when the real thing proves less satisfactory than the video version. No less than rock god John Mayer, whose girlfriends have included Jessica Simpson, Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, told Playboy that he prefers masturbation to “real” sex: “Once I have to deal with someone else’s desires, I cut and run.” If you don’t even have to leave the house to find sexual gratification—much less put on a tie, make small talk and pay for dinner—why would you bother? That this forces young women to compete for men’s attention not just with one another but also with Jesse Jane and Lexi Belle explains a lot of contemporary evening wear.
*Names, but nothing else, have been changed.