Our Digital Economy Lashes Families Together Forever

Love You Forever, Pay For You Forever

Person in a suit
Will you end up paying for your adult children's digital lifestyle forever?.


Deagreez / iStock / Getty Images Plus

I don’t like millennial bashing. Grouping people together based on birth date seems lazy and wrong. We are not defined by our times; we define them. At least that’s what I want to believe.

But I realized that I felt a certain sense of validation when I saw a new Money Under 30 survey that said 45 percent of millennials, those born between 1981 and 2000, still get monthly financial support from their parents. I have a pair of millennials at home (though, depending on which study your reference – Pew Research or the U.S. Census – my daughter may be part of Gen Z) and, while they are young adults and both work, their financial lives are still deeply intermingled with my own.

Perhaps when they move out, they’ll become financially independent. Based on the survey, that seems unlikely, but I also think our digital economy is designed to keep families financially enmeshed through eternity.

One Lump Family Sum

Despite somewhat different spending habits than their GenX and Baby Boomer predecessors, millennials are not a class of X-Men-like financial mutants. On the other hand, their disinterest in things like home-ownership, cars, and even children has led to a multitude of different spending decisions and, maybe, creative ways of financing them.

According to the study, almost 18 percent of millennials get help with their cellphone bills. This doesn’t surprise me not so much because cellular plans and smartphones are so expensive (they are), but because families invariably have “Family Plans” where they can save hundreds of dollars a year. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint (for now) all support four (or more) line plans with good deals (usually $40 a line) on unlimited data. It can even help reduce the costs of new phones by tying everyone into upgrade plans.

These deals can seem complicated, so much so that I think most families would rather leave them in place even after their children leave the home, which is probably why so many independent millennials are still on their family plans.

The Next Gen

The survey doesn’t address them, but I suspect the situation is only going to get worse with Gen Z, those born at the turn of the new millennium and who are our first generation of digital natives.

These kids, who are this close to entering adulthood, have been bred on the sweet milk of digital services:

  • Streaming Movies
  • Unlimited Music
  • Amazon Prime
  • Cloud storage
  • Microsoft Office subscriptions

All of these services are more efficient and cheaper when used as a family.

With Microsoft, I pay a $99 a year Office365 subscription fee so we can all have Microsoft Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint). My kids have never paid for software that wasn’t a video game. How would I explain to them when they leave that they might need a new productivity software plan? I worry that any of these conversations might be met with a reaction akin to me suggesting they’ll have to pay for oxygen outside our home.

Apple Family Sharing on two iPhone screens
Setting up and using Apple's Family sharing is pretty easy. Apple Inc

In my house, we recently switched everyone over to Apple’s Family Sharing. I wanted to do this years ago and it should have been easy, but because we initially had my son on my credit-carded iTunes account and my daughter on my wife’s credit-carded account everything was a bit screwy and redundant. We disentangled the whole mess shortly after I upgraded my iCloud storage to 2TB for $9.99 a month. I did this in part because my wife (a GenXer) had run out of space on her $0.99-a-month 50 GB iCloud storage account. Now, theoretically, she never will.

My daughter also had a $9.99 a month Apple Music subscription (that we paid for). I canceled that, signed up for the $15.99 a month Apple Music Family Subscription and then invited my family to join at no additional cost to enjoy unlimited music.

We also share an Amazon Prime account as a family. We have a Netflix basic subscription that allows us to run two screens at once, which is fine until my daughter goes to school and she’s on Netflix when we want to use our two HDTVs at home to binge two different shows (someone’s gonna end up streaming Goliath on Amazon Prime Video).

IRL Sharing

With one major exception, the sharing of digital costs mirrors what you’ll find with any family health insurance plan. The parents pay and the children benefit, but there are laws in place that boot kids off family healthcare when they turn 26. Meanwhile, you can stay on your parents' Amazon account for life.

I honestly do not mind paying for my millennials, but I also realize that I have no idea how, if and when they leave home, we untangle various parts of our digital lives. In particular, what happens to their iCloud storage? By the time my kids leave home they will likely each have at least 15-years-worth of data. It’ll be far too much to move to their own basic 5G iCloud account. So, they, too, will need their own 2TB of data.

Will there be a conversation when they go about how to transfer these expenses? Of course not. My kids will, like so many others, know that we'll just keep paying.

Someday when I die, I assume I will leave my Amazon Account, Netflix, Office.com, and treasure trove of iCloud storage space to my children. They may fight over who gets to keep them until they realize they have to keep up the monthly payments as well. Perhaps one of them will simply use it for their own Gen Q kids, and the cycle will continue.