Multigenerational households: the new normal?

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | September 29, 2015

If you are a young adult living with your parents, you both probably look forward to your leaving the nest one day to establish your own household. To make your own way in the world traditionally represents a significant milestone toward independence -- whether alone, partnered, or with a house full of roommates. Recent US household trends, however, such as boomerang millennials returning to the parental home, seem to challenge the reasoning behind this familiar rite of passage.

And it's not only the millennials moving back in. Several generations under one roof are finding the arrangement practical from the standpoint of caregiving for aging parents and young grandchildren. Could multigenerational households become the new normal?

Why multigenerational households make sense

In the past decade, you may have noticed more households comprising multiple generations of the same family, but they don't all consist of post-graduation millennials coming home to live with their parents. In fact, the Census Bureau doesn't even consider a household with fewer than three generations of relatives under one roof "multigenerational." Scenarios that qualify according to the Census Bureau's parameters would include, for example, aging parents who move in with their grown child and grandchildren, or parents whose grown children move in and bring their children with them.

Householders whose parents and whose grown children both move in with them represent the fastest growing segment of multigenerational households today. Regardless of how you define it, all this multigenerational living begs the question, Is it the economy that's to blame or are there other contributing factors?

A preliminary analysis of US household trends by the Population Association of America (PAA) 2015 compared decades of Census Bureau data and came to a different conclusion regarding boomerang young adults or failure to launch: young adults who fail to permanently leave the nest may do so because of the tendency of the last few generations to marry later in life than previous ones.

Their findings point out that since the 1970s, Baby Boomers, Gen Y, and Millennials have progressively married later in life than each prior generation. The logic seems to be that little urgency exists to move out in your twenties or even your early thirties if you're not going to establish a separate nuclear family -- a single set of parents with dependent children. But what about the desire to live "on your own"? Isn't that fierce spirit of independence woven into the very fabric of American culture?

US household trends: from nuclear families to multigenerational households

Leaving home as soon as economically feasible has customarily been a sign of adulthood for young women and men. In the booming economy that followed the Second World War and continued for a couple of decades, young adults had the reasonable expectation not only of employment but of progressively higher income. Many could afford to marry and start a family -- or at least move out and live independently.

More recently, after numerous economic downturns and the recent Great Recession -- even with unemployment improving -- wages have been stagnant while rents and student loan debt have kept on rising. About 19 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived with their parents in 2012, according to the latest American Community Service data. So, despite the factor of delayed matrimony, you can attribute the multigenerational household phenomenon (at least indirectly) to a lackluster economy.

Putting off marriage, a family, or home ownership starts to make perfect sense when your finances are floundering, but even if you've already married and currently have children, living with older family members may provide live-in childcare to help make ends meet. Likewise, sharing care-giving responsibilities for the oldest family members can be a practical solution for Boomers whose parents would otherwise need to pay for professional in-home care or assisted living. Multigenerational living arrangements just make sense for increasing numbers of families who cannot shoulder all of the responsibilities alone, both social and financial.

Building homes for multigenerational households

If sharing a home among three or more generations doesn't exactly fit the American ideal of independence, why are so many families doing it? Why, for that matter, are builders such as Lennar and KTGY Group designing, building, and selling new-construction multigenerational homes?

The increase in multigenerational households did not just happen overnight. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reports the numbers have increased 26.7 percent since 1990 -- from 2.9 million to 4.4 million households. The NAHB points out, however, that racially and ethnically diverse families account for nearly 63 percent of that market share, and immigrant families account for one in three multigenerational US households.

You may point to the economy and present-day American marriage customs as the root causes of these trends, but clearly cultural diversity has played a role in this shift toward more and more multigenerational households. Americans whose inherited cultures accept multigenerational living arrangements as normal appear to be setting a sensible example of familial cooperation.

As Richard A. Settersten, Jr., director of the Hallie Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families and Professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, points out, "[T]hose of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people. It is ironic that much of our 'independence,' where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others."

While it may not be the new normal, the multigenerational lifestyle looks like it's here to stay. If eventual financial independence is your goal -- getting out of debt, going back to school to earn a better income, saving for a downpayment on your own home -- it could mean living with family for as long as it takes. If you've got your doubts, keep in mind that growing up with grandma may not be the worst thing that could happen to you or your kids. Actually, it could be the best.

Photo credit to Kevin Irby

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.