multigenerational living

Why Multigenerational Living Is Our Future

From 1971 to 2021, an examination of census data reveals a significant shift in American living patterns. The U.S. population residing in households spanning multiple generations saw a fourfold increase, reaching 59.7 million by March 2021. This change reflects a change of almost 2x or 18% of the U.S. population. We can not attribute all of this shift to the recent Pandemic, although it did exacerbate the situation.

What’s Old is New Again

What was once considered a typical family support system, multigenerational living saw a sharp decline in the mid-20th Century. Prior to that decline, many families, especially new immigrant families, found support from having other adults in the household. Grandparents often provided the childcare support. And as the grandparents aged, the adult children and grandchildren would support them.

Often this could mean that the house had multiple income earners – possibly an active, working grandparent, the adult child(ren), and possibly one or more young, but working age, children.

And another factor that contributed to this multigenerational family dynamic was location, In 1915, for example, more than half of the U.S. population of 100 million residents lived in rural areas. At that time, most people would be born, grow up, raise children, then help tend to grandchildren in one geographic area.

In fact, in the early 20th Century, 1 in 5 households contained seven or more individuals.

Along Came the Nuclear Family

In the mid-nineteenth century, abour 70 percent of persons aged 65 or older lived with children or extended family. Statistics show that from around 1920 onwards, the shift of elders residing with children began to sharply decline. And during the mid-century -1940-1980 – more than half of that decline occurred. By 1990, less than 15% of the aged population lived with their children. The rest of the elder population either lived in elder communities (6.8%) or they lived alone or with their spouses (70%).

Many factors contributed to the shift from the multigenerational family to a ‘nuclear family‘. One of the biggest factors was job mobility. Rural, agricultural work began to decline. And the job opportunities increased in manufacturing and other industries that brought more workers to urban environments.

The post-WWII years afforded many young people (especially white Americans) an opportunity to get an education and move away from the agrarian lifestyle of their parents and grandparents. And increased earnings, along with new, affordable housing, presented opportunities for young couples to set up house on their own.

Even among the African-American communities, the movement to northern cities, during the Great Migration, led to a similar breakup of the intergenerational support network of the extended family.

The wage earner at that time was primarily the man, with the woman providing a safe and comfortable home for the man and their children. At that time, this might have been perceived as less ‘stressful’, with fewer adults trying to manage the household.

But, it did come with its own issues. In fact, some would say that the move to the ‘nuclear family’ has been a disaster.

The Move Back to Multigenerational Family Structures

In the last half of the 20th Century, many factors began to put pressure on the nuclear family. First, and foremost, is the financial factor. During the past 50 years, earning potential and cost of living factors have made it difficult to maintain a household on a single wage earner. The pressure has grown for more women to join the workforce to make ends meet.

Two working parents can create additional issues for a nuclear family, not least of which is childcare. Without extended family, the additional cost of childcare can often equal the income of the second wage earner in the family.

The rise in divorces in this time period has created more single-parent households. This puts extra stress on the sole wage earner to play several life roles at once.

And all of these factors have been compounded in the last decades due to the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financial Issues Top the List of Reasons for Multigenerational Homes

Most families in the U.S. have been impacted by some of the recent financial and health crises. During the pandemic shutdown, many people who were not cohabitating with extended family or friends found the separation painful.

Working from home during and after the pandemic has caused some disruption for families. But it has also allowed other families to reconsider their lifestyle needs. Often that would mean relocating out of urban areas.

But, almost 1 in 5 Americans reported that the pandemic created economic difficulties. Many reported that they had to use money from savings to pay for their day-to-day financial needs and pay bills.

Young workers have been hit especially hard over the last decades. Wages have stalled, forcing many young workers to struggle to pay off school loans. This makes the cost of living difficult for this generation.

According to Pew Research, “nearly four-in-ten men ages 25 to 29 now live with older relatives”. A slightly lower number is presented by another report. In a Statista report, of the 25-34 year old U.S. male populations is 18.8%. But by either measure, it is lower than the same age female population.

And this trend does not seem to be changing soon.

What Might The Future of Family Structure Look Like?

Multigenerational living has grown sharply in the U.S. over the past five decades and shows no sign of peaking. 

With continuing trends regarding marriage, delayed pregnancies (sometimes referred to as ‘geriatric pregnancies’), less children, LGBTQ acceptance, and divorce, the family structure of the future could look different than it does now.

According to author and DEI specialist, Farzani Nayani, in a recent article in Parents Magazine, the definition of family has never been a ‘two-parent, two(ish)-kid unit, but rather it is “a collective of individuals who love each other.”

And that might be the best way to look at family going forward – as a group of individuals who love and support each other.

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