A picture of the author’s classroom (normally a ballroom) in Spring 2021 at Whitman College. Photo by Rebecca Devereaux, from here.

The Great Recession a decade ago led a lot of college students back to their parents’ homes because they couldn’t find jobs and had a lot of student debt, thus stalling the path toward financial and housing independence for these “boomerang kids.” The COVID-19 pandemic led more young adults ages 18-29 to live with their parents than we have seen since the Great Depression (the Pew Research Center reported 52%); some researchers note that the pandemic has stalled young people’s paths to adulthood, especially those in economic precarity and in racial groups underrepresented at U.S. colleges and universities.

Many of us have had our temporal and spatial worlds disrupted by the pandemic, moving workspaces into dining rooms (like me), shifting schedules to accommodate the harrowing (and gendered) tasks of doing paid work while helping children with at-home online learning, and spending time worrying (at home) about whether there’ll be another paycheck from jobs that were eliminated or stalled due to pandemic restrictions and economic precarity.

I study how living spaces matter in people’s social roles and relationships, and how the boundaries between spaces and time periods come to be socially defined and made salient by people in their everyday lives. I’m interested not just in how the transition into adulthood is studied using concrete markers such as financial independence and moving out of a childhood bedroom, but also in the ways these markers subjectively matter. After seeing my own undergraduate students have their lives, homes, and learning disrupted in the spring of 2020 (and then deal with the uncertainty of what college would look like in the fall of 2020), I wondered what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on college student living situations and, in turn, how these living situations mattered in how students perceived their transition into adulthood. When I started working with several undergraduate research assistants, we agreed on some questions to further investigate in a survey of 339 U.S. college students: Did students who stayed or returned to their parents’ homes during college perceive a stall on their path toward adulthood? Did students who left home during the pandemic see themselves as more adult-like?

As we have been analyzing the survey responses, we have found not only that the interplay between time and living spaces plays a role in college students’ perceptions of adult-like experiences, but also that these perceptions come about when students make relative comparisons between time periods and living spaces based on changes in their living arrangements.

We focused on group differences, with four groups defined in terms of changes in their pre-Fall 2020 and Fall 2020 living arrangements:

  • those who lived in their childhood homes before and during Fall 2020
  • those who lived in their childhood homes before Fall 2020 but left during Fall 2020
  • those who lived away from their childhood home before Fall 2020 and returned home during Fall 2020
  • those who lived away from their childhood home before and during Fall 2020

We defined “childhood home” as “the primary place(s) you lived when you were a teenager.” We included a Global Change in Adulthood index consisting of 27 individual measures compiled from past studies and conversations with current college students. These measures were also subdivided into four sub-indexes of Autonomy (e.g., “I had control over my living spaces”), Financial Independence (e.g., “I was financially independent”), Responsibility (e.g., “I had adult responsibilities”), and Identity (e.g., “I thought of myself as an adult”). We asked students to note if these markers occurred in both or neither time periods, or if they occurred more in 2020 than 2019 or more in 2019 than 2020.

The Global Change in Adulthood index and the sub-indexes of Autonomy and Responsibility showed statistically significant group mean differences. Despite being younger and less likely to have started college, students who left their childhood home in Fall 2020 showed the greatest perceived increase in adult experiences, especially when compared to students who had already left and returned home.

Importantly, the questions asking about whether there was a change in adulthood markers between 2019 and 2020 required a comparative assessment across time and space. To unpack our findings, we delved into social comparison and temporal comparison theories. Intrapersonal (rather than just interpersonal) comparisons are important to consider when individuals assess their opinions, abilities, and experiences. Temporal comparison theory suggests that a person may assess the efficacy of their present situation in terms of their own history, thus subjectively deciding whether their current self is better off than their past self. This comparison can exist alongside an assessment of whether their situation diverges or converges with social expectations for their group, which is the primary focus of social comparison theory.

Students who left home in Fall 2020 comprised the only group of students who followed a normative path toward adulthood that was embedded within our living arrangements variable: leaving home. What someone thinks about where they live now may be impacted by whether they compare their living situation with a previous residence, rather than a static assessment isolated from past conditions. If a college student who leaves home perceives their path as aligning with group norms for young adults who are supposed to venture away from a parental home, and if that student perceives leaving home as making sense in light of their own personal history as they move from childhood into adulthood, then it is more likely that this student would consider their path to be normal and acceptable. Further, this student may perceive this path to be acceptable even in light of other more objective measures that may indicate a stall or movement backwards on the path toward adulthood, such as decreased household responsibilities.

For students who left and then returned to a childhood home because their college shut down, they had health concerns, or they had financial strain, the same processes of social and temporal comparison apply. This is the group who showed the biggest perceived decline in adulthood markers. Students who returned home after being away were disrupting their trajectory toward adulthood by virtue of going “backwards” into a parental home. This reversal, along with challenging role negotiations and the violation of a social ideal, likely had a powerful impact on students’ belief that they were moving less into adulthood because of returning home. That they were a year older or had gained autonomy as a result of moving away from home did not add up to enough adult-like currency to counteract the relative impact of moving back home, which was likely seen as taking a step backwards on the path toward adulthood. As Arnold Mont’Alvao, Pamela Aronson, and Jeylan Mortimer reveal in their study of COVID-19 impacts on paths to adulthood, “delay in family related transitions interferes with adult identity formation and fosters feelings of being ‘off time’ in acquiring markers of adulthood. Thus, those who perceive themselves as ‘late’ with respect to family-related markers have difficulty thinking of themselves as adults.” For these students, while they may not be objectively delayed as compared to the numerous others in their group who may also be returning home (due to the pandemic), they may perceive themselves to be delayed in terms of a normative idealized path to adulthood, as if they are going backwards to a moment in time in their own biographies that signifies childhood.

What the survey data in our study reveal is that a temporal comparison not only consists of assessing one’s current situation with a past one; it may also consist of assessing one’s current situation with an imagined current situation that would signify a preferred temporal trajectory and a preferred spatial transition: moving from childhood toward adulthood over time and in spaces that move away from a childhood home, and not the other way around.

Analyzing what students think about where they lived, especially when they compare the arrangements from one year to the next in terms of a childhood home (and, by extension, they compare their current selves with both past selves and idealized current selves that develop from past selves), adds nuance to existing knowledge about college student living experiences, the boundary between childhood and adulthood, and COVID-19 social impacts.

More practically, findings like ours can help parents understand why their pandemic-induced “boomerang” kids may be feeling out of sorts and why role renegotiation that was already challenging became even more harrowing in a world filled with social disruption and confusion. College and university residence life professionals can see how the ways that living spaces are seen by students often involves a comparison, which can be difficult to reframe if powerful ideals about social roles are attached to those spaces in a time when being “at college” has changed meaning. And students themselves can use our research to better equip themselves for enhanced self-awareness as they navigate the difficult path to adulthood in times where disruption and uncertainty are the new normal.

Why do time and space feel weird for college students? Because both real and imagined reference points for both have been turned upside down. That weird feeling, though, can have a poignant impact on future assessments of life stage transitions, which is why it is crucial to study the perceptions themselves.

Thanks to student researchers Julian Landau, Jess Lilly, Ruby Matthews, and Kaia Roast.

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of spaces, material culture, and interpersonal roles and relationships. She has conducted several studies about the impact of COVID-19 on social roles and inequalities. Her son attended high school online in their basement while she taught and researched in the dining room upstairs during 2020-21. Her work is featured at www.michellejanning.com.