Susan J. Matt is author of Homesickness: An American History (Oxford University Press, 2011). She is Presidential Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah. She tweets at @alongingforhome.

Not long ago, The Onion ran an article with the headline “Unambitious Loser with Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives in Hometown.” The piece quoted a friend of the “loser,” who said, “I’ve known Mike my whole life and he’s a good guy, but it’s pretty pathetic that he’s still living on the same street he grew up on and experiencing a deep sense of personal satisfaction . . . .[H]e’s nearly 30 years old, living in the exact same town he was born in, working at the same small-time job, and is extremely contented in all aspects of his home and professional lives. It’s really sad.”

While the article was fiction, the attitudes it encapsulated were not. Americans disparage those overly attached to home. The homesick, boomerang kids, and tightly bonded families seem antithetical to American individualism. We are supposed to be a nation of restless movers who break ties to home with ease. When individuals stay in place, it contradicts our mythology. What is wrong with these people?homesickness

That’s a question being asked with increasing frequency about the rising generation, for nearly 22 percent of all adults in their 20s and 30s are living with their parents, the highest rate since the 1950s. And the media have not been kind to them: CBS News observed “… for many boomerang kids, living in a parent’s home becomes a crutch, enabling them to put off making grown-up decisions . . . .” Others have termed them the “Go-Nowhere Generation.”

The message is that staying home shows immaturity and a fatal lack of ambition. It is a sign of emotional neediness and dependence, traits widely stigmatized in American society. However, the expectation that individuals should leave home in their early 20s, and do so easily, is of recent vintage. Only in the last century did Americans come to see young adults who were emotionally close to kin and geographically rooted as psychologically immature and destined for economic failure.

In the nineteenth century, Americans believed that love for home was an ennobling emotion, evidence of a tender heart and a strong family life. Writers and preachers lavished praise on those who loved home, while physicians suggested that wandering too far from it could be fatal, for they believed people could die of acute homesickness.

In contrast, during the 20th century, as corporations and the military began to deploy people across the nation and the globe, strong attachments to family and place became a problem, obstacles to the smooth flow of capital and personnel. The love of home became an archaic emotion in a modern society dependent on a fungible, mobile workforce.

By mid-century, experts were arguing that tightly bonded families were out of place in America. Sociologist W. Lloyd Warner explained that because the economy required individuals to move frequently, “families cannot be too closely attached to their kindred. . . or they will be held to one location, socially and economically maladapted.” Those who tried to maintain strong kin ties were criticized. In 1951, psychiatrist Edward Strecker, preoccupied with the Cold War and the need for a mobile fighting force, accused American mothers of keeping their “children enwombed psychologically,” failing to “untie the emotional apron string . . . which binds her children to her.” He dubbed these women the nation’s “gravest menace.”

Today, we continue to believe young adults should leave home. When they don’t, their living choices are chalked up to poor employment prospects. While economic realities surely play a part in their residential choices, the media give short shrift to other motives. The idea that families might be drawn together by feelings of affection is left out of the equation, as is the possibility that this generation wants to become something other than mobile individualists. Yet there’s considerable evidence that millennials hold values that center more on family and less on high powered careers. A recent poll found them far less concerned with financial success than the population at large. They also are closer to their parents, whom they fight with less, and talk with more than earlier generations.

For decades we’ve assumed that leaving home in one’s early twenties is natural, a sign of healthy psychological adjustment; but we should remember such expectations are historically contingent. Today’s millennials remind us there are other ways of organizing family life than the model we’ve grown accustomed to, and prompt us to recognize that values other than individualistic, market-driven ones frequently motivate human behavior. We can learn from them that staying close to home does not make one an “unambitious loser.”