Waiting lines at the bathroom? Overflow in the kitchen cabinets? Welcome to the suddenly multi-generational family home.
Yesterday a friend of mine was alternately laughing and crying (I mean, literally) over the tales of her once comfortable, now overstuffed home. Her daughter and son-in-law, both unemployed for an extended time and overwhelmed by mounting debt and loss of health insurance, recently moved in with the older generation. With them came three grandchildren, ages 3, 8 and 11. It could make a great sitcom pilot. “My husband was so desperate to get into one of our two and a half bathrooms the other day,” she said, “that he suggested getting one of those take-a-number things they have in hospital waiting areas. The kids put labels on their snack bar boxes, but now I can’t even find which shelf the boxes got stuffed into or what they’re hiding behind.”
Welcome to the brave new world of extended-family housing.
The extended family is making something of a comeback, thanks to delayed marriage, immigration and recession-induced job losses and foreclosures that have forced people to double-up under one roof, an analysis of Census Bureau figures has found.
“The Waltons are back,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the analysis.
Multigenerational families, which accounted for 25 percent of the population in 1940 but only 12 percent by 1980, inched up to 16 percent in 2008, according to the analysis.
For the rapidly growing 65+ segment of the population, there’s good news and bad news in this. Loneliness is often cited as a great fear among the aged. At talks and workshops this writer often does on end-of-life issues (advance directives, end-of-life choices, etc.) the response to any “What do you fear most?” question is never “death,” almost always “pain,” “isolation” or “loneliness.” When younger generations move in, loneliness is unlikely, but other problems may well take its place.
The analysis also found that the proportion of people 65 and older who live alone, which had been rising steeply for nearly a century — from 6 percent in 1900 to 29 percent in 1990 — declined slightly, to 27 percent.
At the same time, the share of older people living in multigenerational families, which plummeted to 17 percent in 1980 from 57 percent in 1900, rose to 20 percent.
While the pre-World War II extended family may have been idealized as a nurturing cocoon, the latest manifestation is too recent and a result of too many factors, positive and negative, to be romanticized.
“It calls to mind one of the famous lines in American poetry, from Robert Frost: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,’ ” Mr. Taylor said. “I don’t know that I can offer a value judgment of whether it’s good or bad. It reflects our time.”
The decline of extended families coincided with an exodus to the suburbs, where many young adults preferred to raise their children, and the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, which made older adults more financially independent.
A lot of factors combine to create the more than 49 million adults currently living in multi-generational homes, the census figures show. We’re living longer, getting married later, getting divorced more often, losing jobs and losing homes. One ray of good news is that the homes now housing multiple generations tend to be larger than a generation ago. Two and a half bathrooms for three generations still beats the olden days of one bathroom for a family of five. But not many families get along as well as the Waltons did. “We love the kids and the grandchidren,” remarked my stressed-out friend mentioned above, “but my son-in-law’s first paycheck is going to go for the down payment on a new apartment.”