April 12, 2018

The Return of Multigenerational Households

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It may seem like the natural order of things for parents and children to live in the same home until the children are off to college or can afford their own apartment. But the so-called “nuclear” family living separately from other family members is mostly a mid-twentieth century development, and one that is declining.

As a Pew Research Center report recently detailed, multigenerational households are becoming more common. In 2016, more than 60 million people, or nearly one in five Americans lived in a household with two or more generations of adults.

In 1940, nearly two-thirds of those 85 or older lived with family members. That percentage fell to less than one in five in 1990, likely a result of the financial stability produced by Social Security and Medicare. But between 1990 and 2014, that percentage rose to 24 percent. The increase of the elderly living with relatives between 1990 and 2014 is not likely the result of widespread declines in health, but rather due to other factors, including the rising cost of housing.

Young adults are now more likely to live with their parents than elderly parents are to live with their adult children. Nearly one in three 25- to 29-year-olds lives with their parents today, up from just 13 percent in 1980. Today’s young adult is about as likely to live with their parents as they were in 1940.

Multigenerational living is by no means new. Historically, this was common in the U.S. until the economic boom following World War II and the subsequent growth of housing made it easier for young families to afford their own homes. The so-called "traditional family" of a working father and stay-at-home mother was a result of this prosperity, but was not universal—only half of children lived within this family arrangement in 1960.

The Great Recession, and subsequent high cost of housing have led more people to share households, according to the Pew report. Of “extra” adults in a household (defined as an adult who is not a spouse or partner or an 18-24 year-old college student), the most common arrangement by far is for adult children to live with their parents.

But this proportion fell from 52 percent of all “extra” adults in 1995 to 47 percent in 2017. This isn’t a huge decline, but the percent of parents who move in with their adult children doubled during this period, from 7 percent to 14 percent of all “extra” adults. Adult siblings, grandchildren, and other relatives were slightly more likely to live in households with families in 2017 than in 2015 as well, albeit just one percent higher in each category.

While at first glance, it might be easy to conclude that the rise in parents moving in with their adult children in greater numbers is the result of aging and age-related conditions. However, according to the report, the percentage of those 75 and older living with another adult has remained the same, at 10 percent in both 1995 and 2017.

It is middle-aged adults who are moving in with their adult children—and others—in greater numbers. Between 1995 and 2017, “extra adults” in households aged 35-54 and 55-64 increased from 9 to 12 percent, and 6 to 10 percent, respectively. This suggests that the cause for moving in with others is more about economics than health, which is especially concerning because late middle age is often when individuals experience higher incomes and are tasked with saving for retirement. The economic difficulties people experience in middle age are likely to echo in their elder years, if they are not able to save for retirement.

A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report noted that household sharing rose between 2007 and 2010, and that those who were the “extra adult” were far more likely to have personal incomes below the poverty threshold, as the graph below details.

The Pew report also notes that part of the increase in multigenerational households is cultural:

Growing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. population helps explain some of the rise in multigenerational living. The Asian and Hispanic populations overall are growing more rapidly than the white population, and those groups are more likely than whites to live in multigenerational family households. Another growth factor is that foreign-born Americans are more likely than the U.S. born to live with multiple generations of family; Asians and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be immigrants.

Multigenerational living might be an indicator of financial stress, but it is a reminder that our notion of what is “normal” and customary is rooted in economic conditions that change over time.


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