Bekah Steadwell graduated last year from an elite college, but the portal to adulthood still seems far away. The 22-year-old, a cook at a bar, lives with her parents in their District of Columbia home. Her father and mother prepare Bekah's taxes -- and, many nights, her dinners.
Soon, thanks to the health care reform act President Obama signed into law Tuesday, Steadwell can piggyback on her parents in one more way: as a dependent on her mother's health plan. The new law requires insurers to allow young people to remain on their parents' policies until their 26th birthday, regardless of their work or marital status.
"I won't have a problem asking my parents for it," Steadwell said. "They would want me to be safe and covered."
In its bureaucratic way, the government's restructuring of health care sets a new starting point for independent adulthood: no longer at age 18 or 21, but deep into the 20s. The new health care benefit, to take effect in six months, acknowledges the economic and social forces -- the grim job market and delays in marriage and childbearing -- that have kept the millennial generation, those generally in their 20s, more dependent on their elders than their parents had been.
"The continuing relationship between parents and young adult children is a really momentous change in the operational meaning of being a parent in the early 21st century," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has studied millennials. Parents are shelling out unprecedented amounts to support their adult children, he said. "No one resists or resents it. Young people expect it."
For all the praise heaped on millennials, especially for their ease with technology, their independence in other realms of life seems elusive. Among Generation X and baby boomers, anecdotes about young people's dependence on Mom or Dad -- or, seen from another direction, parents' extended role overseeing their adult children -- are ubiquitous: Parents make angry calls to employers or university officials when their child's application has been rejected, or step in to handle a child's bid for a first home.
At the University of Virginia, Admissions Dean Greg Roberts said his office notified applicants at 5 p.m. Friday whether they were admitted, so he expects to be deluged with calls on Monday from upset parents. "I see parents calling our office asking questions that the students should be asking," he said. "Eighty to 90 percent of the calls come from parents, not students."
Washington-area real estate agents say they increasingly see otherwise savvy young professionals clinging to their parents when they buy a house. Kay Marlin, a broker at Chatel Real Estate in the District, has seen more young buyers who handle negotiations while in constant contact with their parents.
"I rarely meet the parents, but I hear the questions coming through the kids," Marlin said. "They'll say, 'Well, my mother said to ask this,' or 'My dad said how this should be,' and they want to rewrite the contracts and send the contracts to their parents who are at some high-powered law firm. . . . When I think back to earlier years, the young people I dealt with used to be proud of their independence."
Today's young adults face a harsh economy, especially when it comes to health care: About 13 million, or nearly 30 percent, of 19- to 29-year-olds lack insurance, according to a 2009 report by the Commonwealth Fund. As a result of financial strains, they delay social rites of passage, leading them to tap their parents well into their 20s, Galston said.
For instance, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds living with their parents gradually increased from 8.3 million in 1960 to 19.2 million in 2007, according to the nonprofit Network on Transitions to Adulthood. The group also found that about 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds get money from their parents, and for 40 percent of those young people, it's at least $10,000 a year.
Over time, the age at which young adults marry or have children has also risen: About 45 percent of men and 60 percent of women now marry by age 28, compared with 79 percent of men and 84 percent of women in 1960, the nonprofit group found.