Multigenerational Living: Everything Old Is New Again
If you were born after 1940, you probably grew up in a nuclear family: mother, father, 2.3 children. Maybe grandparents or other relatives lived nearby but not under the same roof. Although the nuclear family seemed the norm for middle-class Americans, it was actually an aberration lasting only a few decades. For most of human history, family members of all ages lived together, and they continue to do so in much of the world. In the United States, large social and economic changes have not only redefined family — think of blended families, same-sex marriages, and children born to surrogate mothers — but have also revived multigenerational living with some modern adaptations.
Why different generations are living together
Each family is different and has its own story, but several reasons contribute to the appeal of generations living together.
Economics is probably the major driver of multigenerational living. Unemployment, loss of housing, credit card debt — all the uncertainties of a changing economy have driven many families together to share resources and space.
Another reason to share a home is the changing needs of aging relatives. Living together can alleviate the strain on family caregivers who must maintain their own home and that of a parent or other relative. The needs of older people who can’t live safely by themselves often can be addressed more easily and economically in a shared household than if they lived in a separate home. And as an advantage for the younger generations in the home, older people can contribute to the household economy and help with some tasks, particularly child care. These arrangements may especially benefit children as they get to know their grandparents intimately and not just on holidays and visits. The whole family may grow much closer as a result of the shared experiences. But these positive outcomes are not guaranteed and do require effort and patience.
On the flip side, prolonged education and poor job prospects have created the Boomerang Generation, young people who have not established households of their own and have returned to feather their parents’ formerly empty nest. This generation includes those who have married and divorced, or who had children while unmarried, and move home with the grandchildren in tow. This way, younger people have a place to live, can establish themselves financially, and can help their aging parents at the same time.
Defining family households by generation
The Pew Research Center, which studies social and demographic trends, identifies several different types of households. Which one describes your family now and which one would describe it if you all lived together?
- One generation: A one-generation household consists of people of the same age group: a married or cohabiting couple, a single person, siblings, or roommates. These people are not necessarily young. A married couple may be in their 80s, and older siblings may live together.
- Two generations: A two-generation family household includes a parent or parents and their child or children under age 25. It may include stepchildren from different marriages. A two-generation household can also be made up of a person over 60 and a parent in his or her 80s or 90s.
- Multigenerational: A multigenerational household can include
- Two generations: Parents or in-laws and adult children (or children-in-law) age 25 and older; either generation can “head” the household.
- Three generations: Parents or in-laws, adult children (and spouse or children-in-law), and grandchildren.
- Skipped generations: Grandparents and grandchildren whose parents are dead or unable to care for them. These are sometimes called “grandfamilies.”
- More than three generations: The ages in the household can range from infancy to extreme old age.
The more generations living together, the greater the opportunities for sharing knowledge and history. Many families find that they enter the arrangement for economic or caregiving reasons but remain in it because they enjoy the closeness of family interactions. But possibilities for friction and dissension also exist. The multigenerational households of older times were not necessarily happy with the arrangement or unaffected by intergenerational or interpersonal strife. The topic of who inherited the family farm in 19th-century America can be just as contentious as current disputes over homes and other assets. Addressing early on the ways in which everyone’s needs will be met and clearly stating everyone’s responsibilities will go a long way toward ensuring a cooperative arrangement. In later sections I suggest specific ways to accomplish this.
In 1940, one quarter of Americans lived in households with at least two adult generations, usually parents and grandparents, as well as minor children. By 1980, that share had declined to 12 percent — the intervening decades were the high point of the nuclear family. But in 1980, that trend started to reverse, and since then the share of all Americans living in two-generation households has continued to increase. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 an estimated 60.6 million Americans, or 19 percent of the total U.S. population, lived in a household that contains at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. The Pew Center attributes this growth to the rising share of immigrants in the population and the rising median age of first marriage. Although this shift affects all ages, it is particularly significant for older adults and 25- to 34-year-olds. In a broader age group — 18–34 — living with parents was more common than other arrangements for the first time in 130 years. Another measure of this change: In 1900, only 6 percent of people 65 and older lived alone, whereas 27 percent currently do. However, people are living much longer than they used to but with many chronic health conditions. Older people who live alone are less healthy and often feel more depressed than their counterparts who live with a spouse or others.
Consider family reactions before making a decision
A move to intergenerational living typically involves the entire family. If you’re planning to combine households, think of how the other people in your life — spouse, children, siblings — are affected by this decision. Having an in-law, a grandparent, or grown children living in your home is not the same as having them visit. Whether you are having an aging parent move in with you or you are the older person about to move into your child’s home, ask yourself the following questions:
- Will the other people in my life have to give up space to accommodate another person?
- Will children still feel free to bring friends home?
- Will family members have additional responsibilities?
If you’re considering bringing a parent into your home, how your siblings react is a particularly sensitive issue. A lot depends on your prior relationship and their relationship with your parent. One sister may feel relieved not to have to take on the responsibility; a brother may worry that being in your home may undermine his relationship with your parent. Money is often a contentious issue between siblings. When dealing with siblings, consider the following questions:
- Who is going to be financially responsible?
- If the person you’re bringing into your home plans to contribute to the household and then retires or suddenly can’t contribute for other reasons, will the financial responsibilities change?
- Will a parent’s contribution to buying a home or supporting a household take money away from an expected inheritance?
- If the move involves the sale of the parent’s home, how will the proceeds be used?
These issues are all best addressed at the outset, although they may have to be revisited as circumstances change.
If you’re the older person moving in with an adult child, ask yourself the following:
- What are my main concerns?
- Will constantly being around grandchildren and their behavior annoy me?
- Will I be able to accept the help that is part of the package?
- Am I concerned that my son or daughter has never been a good money manager and may not use my financial contribution wisely?
These issues are best discussed before you make a move.
The following is perhaps the most important question you need to ask yourself before going further in your fact-finding: Is this something I want to do or something I feel I should do? If it’s something you want to do, and the primary person you’re concerned about also wants to do it, then you have a good beginning. If it’s something you feel you should do, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Just take a good look at your worries and negative feelings. You may be making some assumptions about what it will be like that won’t be borne out. Talk to others in this situation to see how they have handled the changes. A trusted family friend or counselor may be able to help you sort out your feelings and to help allay your concerns. But if this honest appraisal results in increasing rather than relieving your anxiety, this may be the time to acknowledge that the arrangement isn’t going to be successful.