Moving in with mom and dad

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.”

Households With Extended Families Are on the Rise, Census Shows –


  1. There is a less-visible story and I bumped into it twice yesterday — desperate midlife men and women who live in their own homes, now, but are relying on money from their parents to survive. As I was leaving the library last night I met a Census worker — 46, out of work 1 yr+ (his wife also out of work) — who is in this situation.

    We both wondered why there is not open revolution in the streets. It is insane.

  2. I wonder why there is not more media coverage of the desperation kingofcheap mentions. It’s out there and it’s terrifying.

    I wonder why there is not open revolt in this country at the appalling, growing inequality. People are falling really far really fast.

    1. This is just a theory: desperation is too tough to confront. People, or a lot of them, would rather stuff it down and grasp at straws or look for some ray of hope somewhere. Sort of like dying: if we don’t talk about it we’ll just live forever. I think in both instances it’s healthier to confront than to pretend or ignore. And yes, I agree, some good media coverage would be useful.

    2. My inner Marxist says it’s because everyone is still in awe at the media-magnified possibility of winning the lottery: Getting a reality show, writing the hot new iPhone app, being the next American Idol, etc. All other dissent has been co-opted by what some call “Private Jet Populists” — Limbaugh, et al. — who have somehow managed to perpetuate the idea that lost jobs are part of a liberal conspiracy, despite NAFTA being drafted by a Republican administration and passed by a Republican Congress.

      Meanwhile, I think people of my generation (30 and under) have just tuned out and are waiting (impatiently) for the boomers to shuffle off the scene and leave their jobs vacant so we can clean up this mess. (Warning: personal rant) Eight months ago I completed my MJ and couldn’t get hired at even the most piddling newspapers. Now, out of desperation, I’ve signed a contract to teach English abroad. Last week, on a whim, I did some more searching and came across my dream job — small-town, hyper-local, family-owned weekly looking for someone who cared about holding public officials accountable — and was told I didn’t have the experience I needed (and could have been getting for the past eight months). My Facebook news feed is full of similar stories.

      We thought Obama shared our sentiments about green issues, anti-war, national health care and highspeed rail, but he’s obviously not concerned with the real problems in this country except where they collide with political expedience.

      Just looked over this and I’m marveling at my ranting abilities.

      @Fran: I share your friend’s frustration over living arrangements — I’ve lived with my partner’s mother for the last 7 months. Lately I’ve been really thankful — if not for her kindness I’d be worse off than the neighbors across the street, who own no car and two bicycles, with two tires between them.

      1. Oh, man, Kingofcheap, I am just reflexively bummed that you didn’t get the dream job. Just the idea that someone articulate WANTS to work for a family-owned weekly with integrity, sheesh. Maybe you’ll wind up having a ball teaching English abroad – and more power to you! – collect a bunch of good stories, come home to a chance to hold SOMEbody accountable and we will have begun to climb out of this abyss. Hope springs eternal.

  3. Sorry to be critical or un-caring, but the underlying context of this piece (and the Times’) is one of extreme privilege and entitlement, sadly typical of boomers I know and read… American lifestyles have long since detached from global norms and now that they may be reverting back due to economic pressures, you mourn the loss of a generation’s “entitlement,” thanking the good lord we at least live in bigger houses than those wretched Asians we’ve heard about… Your friend should get some perspective. There are Americans living in cars and tent cities right now, bankrupt from lack of health insurance.

    1. I don’t think it’s critical or un-caring to point out that American perspective, kingofcheap, just accurate. Caitlin Kelly (comment above) had a similar reaction. Thanks for yours.

  4. All true. We still look and sound, fairly, spoiled beyond measure when compared to many other countries, who live in small(er) homes and are accustomed to multi-generational living. It is very American to expect otherwise and resent it when it happens.

    It’s too easy to be pissed off about a bathroom line-up when the structural shifts in this economy are appalling. I interviewed a 51-year-old single woman today who is ashamed but desperate to take income from her 82-year-old mother. At least this woman lives, for now, on her own.

    Many, many people — I am one of them — don’t even have this choice! My mom lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in another country a six-hour flight away. My father, until two years ago, was married to someone who made clear this would never have been an option for me.

    I wish there were more focus on these people. Less amusing a story, but there are many of them.

    1. You’re so right about our failure to recognize that at least we’ve got options, Caitlin. I worry more about those here in the U.S. who actually DON’T have options — and wind up on the streets. I’ve seen more & more homeless men in shelters, over the last 3 years, who are working every day but have had to make the choice between food and housing. I hope things might get better in time to pull those folks back from the brink. (And yes, 7 people sharing 2 1/2 baths have little to complain about.)

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