Financial Independence? Today’s Young People Don’t Expect It Anytime Soon

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In a mere two years, the proportion of teenagers who expect to be financially dependent on their parents until their mid-20s has doubled. That gives us all another reason to feel sympathy for parents who have teenagers right now. 

A new survey conducted by Junior Achievement, a group that teaches kids about money and jobs, found that 25% of teens think they won’t be able to support themselves until their mid-20s. Two years ago, just 12% of teens surveyed said that they’d have to reach the 25-to 27-year-old age bracket before being able to pay all of their own bills. Correspondingly, the proportion of teens who expect to achieve financial independence by the ages of 18 to 24 has plummeted, from 75% in 2011 to 59% today.

Are these kids just unmotivated? Maybe some of them are, but many more are facing escalating college costs and poor job prospects. An alarming number have a poor understanding of budgeting and basic finance as well.

Plus, the old stigmas attached to relying on one’s parents well into adulthood, and even moving back home after college, seem to have faded. To make ends meet, Generation X crowded in with roommates, ate Ramen and slept on futons. Post-college millennials still have roommates, but they increasingly call them “mom” and “dad.” The number of young adults living with their parents spiked during the Great Recession era. Today’s teens apparently don’t mind the idea of moving back in with the ‘rents, or they at least understand the necessity of making such a move given the state of the economy and the likelihood of large student loans down the road.

(MORE: Being 30 and Living With Your Parents Isn’t Lame — It’s Awesome)

Providing a place to live isn’t the only way parents are helping out their adult children. In many families, it’s become the norm for parents to step in and pay bills for smartphones, Internet access, music and TV subscription services like iTunes and Hulu. A survey of parents with adult children up to 35 years old conducted by Harris Interactive for the Wall Street Journal found that more than 40% still pay for their kids’ cell phone service. Nearly 30% keep paying the bill even after their kids are living on their own. (It does get rid of one excuse why Junior never calls home.)

The cost of making sure your 35-year-old offspring can still text, stream Spotify and watch The Big Bang Theory isn’t cheap: Parents spend an average of $108 a month, Harris Interactive found. While this might not break the bank for some families, there’s growing concern that subsidizing adult kids is stretching parents too thin, especially because one in five also provides financial support to an elderly parent. According to a Pew Research study published earlier this year, more than 40% of respondents who help support a parent say they either barely break even or don’t have enough money to meet basic expenses.

About two-thirds of young respondents in the Junior Achievement survey think they’ll be equally or better off financially than their parents. This optimism might be unfounded, though, because today’s young people — like so many young people before them — don’t have a firm grasp of personal finance issues. According to their responses, about a quarter admit they don’t understand budgeting, one in five don’t know how to use credit cards, and roughly a third don’t know how to invest money.

“Part of the reason teens expect to live with parents longer may be because they are unsure about their ability to budget, use credit cards or invest money,” the study suggests.

It’s overly simplistic, though, to think that parents can give their kids a crash course in budgeting and expect them to fly the nest at 18. “The Great Recession and sluggish recovery have taken a disproportionate toll on young adults,” the Pew study points out.

The cost of college — and the fact that today’s teens are unprepared for it — is one reason they might be living in their old bedroom into their mid 20s. Only 9% of respondents in the Junior Achievement survey say they’re saving for college, and almost half say they don’t know how much they should be saving, although around two-thirds say their parents have talked about it with them.

(MORE: Student Loan Debt Crisis: How’d We Get Here and What Happens Next?)

Currently, the percentage of people who can’t pay back their student loans could be as high as 30%, by some estimates, and the cost of higher education isn’t getting any cheaper: The average amount of loans student borrowers take on has jumped 30% in five years and now hovers near $24,000.

Opting out of higher education isn’t really a viable option, though: Jobs that didn’t used to require a college degree, like security manager, dental hygienist or lab tech, now are out of reach for people without a four-year degree. And that’s if new graduates can even find jobs. As of December, the unemployment rate for Americans in the 20- to 24-year-old age bracket was roughly double the national average.

We’ve already heard plenty about the “boomerang generation,” the 29% of 25-to-34-year-olds who live with their parents because they can’t find a job or make ends meet on their own. According to the Pew study, the percentage of middle-aged parents who are the primary financial support for a child over the age of 18 climbed from 20% to 27% since 2005. An additional 21% percent of parents say they provide “some support” for their adult kids.

What’s sad, and speaks volumes about perceptions concerning the economy and jobs in the future, is that today’s teenagers expect pretty much the same situation in their first decade of adulthood, too.