Many understood after the 2007-2009 recession that times would be tough. But few say they expected to be in economic limbo more than four years later.
"I'm constantly looking for other jobs," says Jeremy Bills, 27, of Nashville, Tenn., who graduated from Vanderbilt University in May 2011 with a master's degree in human and organizational development. Originally from Tampa, Fla., Bills has stayed put in his college town in hopes of finding a job in management consulting or human resources. Instead, he has mostly found odd jobs like pulling weeds and dog-sitting.
Bills says he pursued a master's degree to bolster his credentials after getting his college diploma in 2008, shortly before the financial meltdown. Instead, he finds himself still struggling financially and worrying that the skills he learned in school where he incurred $20,000 in student loan debt are "kind of atrophying right now."
"It's not like riding a bicycle. You can't just jump into a career position so many years after training," said Bills, who now works at a nonprofit organization making $12 an hour and is looking for a second job.
Among adults ages 25-29, just 4.9 million, or 23.3 percent, moved in the 12 months ending March 2013. That's down from 24.6 percent in the same period the year before. It was the lowest level since at least 1963. The peak of 36.7 percent came in 1965, during the nation's youth counterculture movement.
The past year's decline in migration came after a modest increase from 2011 to 2012, a sign that young adults remain tentative about testing the job market in other cities.
By metropolitan area, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Houston were among the top gainers in young adults, reflecting stronger local economies. Among college graduates 25 and older, Denver and Washington, D.C., topped the list of destinations.
Demographers say the delays in traditional markers of adulthood full-time careers and homeownership may prove to be longer-lasting.
Roughly 1 in 5 young adults ages 25 to 34 is now disconnected from work and school.
"Young adulthood has grown much more complex and protracted, with a huge number struggling to reach financial independence," said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the private Population Reference Bureau. "Many will get there, but at much later ages than we've seen in the past. More and more we're seeing many young adults routinely wait until their 30s to leave the parental nest."
The overall decline in migration among young adults is being driven largely by a drop in local moves within a county, which fell to the lowest level on record. Out-of-state moves also fell, from 3.8 percent in 2012 to 3.4 percent, but remained higher than a 2010 low of 3.2 percent.