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Shifting Trends: More Americans Choose Multigenerational Housing

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There appears to be strong evidence that – in a reversal of a decades-old trend – an increasing number of Americans are choosing to live in multigenerational housing.  There’s “a growing change in the way Americans, including older people, are choosing to live,” according to this recent article from the New York Times.  Demographers have begun noticing what the article calls “an uptick in shared and multigenerational housing.”

It appears to us here at AgingOptions that this trend, if it proves to be sustainable, is a positive one. We’ve often commented on our radio program and in our LifePlanning Seminars that the American way of “caring” for seniors by relegating them to nursing homes against their wishes is both undignified and unsustainably expensive. While it’s true that some seniors do require 24-hour institutional care, many do not, and for these a multigenerational housing arrangement could be the ideal solution, so long as the family agrees and is prepared for what lies ahead.

The Times article begins with a profile of an Indian-American family in Queens, New York, who in 2016 sold their home and purchased one large enough to accommodate “six people: themselves, their two teenagers and ailing parents, plus the family dog.” The aging mother has dementia while the 84 year old father is increasingly frail. The family has managed to hire a caregiver to be with the older parents during the daytime.  According to the New York Times article there’s a strong cultural precedent: “In an Indian-American family, a household encompassing three generations isn’t uncommon,” according to the matriarch of the household who says, “There’s an understanding that parents could be living with us at some point.” Sadly that understanding does not appeared to be shared by many American families, but nevertheless the statistics indicate that the number of multigenerational households is on the rise.

The Times article traces the history of multiple generations of American families living together. In a study released two decades ago, two economists pointed out that at the end of the 1800’s most elderly widows lived with one of their children. The practice was “so common…that it developed a nostalgic sheen, enshrined as the way things ought to be.” But by the 1940s these economists discovered that this intergenerational housing arrangement began “crumbling”: in 1940 about 60 percent of older widows were living with their children, but by 1990 that number had plummeted to about 20 percent.

“Did Americans stop loving their mothers in 1940?” asks the Times. “No, but their parents began receiving checks from a just-enacted New Deal program called Social Security and no longer had to rely financially on their families.  ‘As elderly people’s income increased, they chose to live independently,’ said Kathleen McGarry, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the study. ‘When they could afford it, they purchased privacy.’”

But a decade or so ago demographers started noticing a shift – an “uptick” in the number of shared and multigenerational households, says the article. (The Times explains the difference between “shared” and “multigenerational” housing: the latter includes at least two generations of related adults. Members of a shared household need not be related.) Part of the reason for this growth in people sharing housing was the economic pain of the Great Recession a decade ago. However, now that the recession has ended, the percentage of those living in shared housing and of those in multigenerational housing has held steady and even continued slowly growing.  At their lowest point back in 1980, according to the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of U.S. households were multigenerational – but by 2014 that number had increased to 19 percent.

Pew researchers suggest that the growth in generations sharing a home is not simply economic. Part of the reason for this shift is demographic: multigenerational housing, says Pew, is far more common among non-white adults who today represent a growing share of the U.S. population.  “About a quarter of non-Hispanic white adults shared a household last year,” reports the New York Times. “But 40 percent of blacks lived in shared households, and 42 percent of Asian-Americans…and nearly half of Hispanics” share housing across multiple generations. Perhaps the more examples we see around us of generations living together, the more common this practice will continue to become.

However, the Times article reminds us, there’s a definite downside to multigenerational housing. “Let’s not romanticize this practice,” the article cautions. “Those who’ve undertaken it caution that shared households demand tough adjustments — physical, financial and emotional.”  Seniors are often proud and set in their ways, and emotions can run high, especially as health declines. But the payoff is clear, says the Indian-American wife from Queens. Her in-laws, she says, “are happier [living] with them than in any assisted living. She sees her children learning important lessons, too. She and her husband tell themselves they’ve made the right choice, for now.”

Obviously this is a complex issue, but it’s one we hope more families will explore. One great way to begin the conversation about multigenerational housing, if you think it’s something your family might consider, is to schedule a family conference with the professionals here at AgingOptions. We’ve conducted many hundreds of conferences like these where families can get all their hopes, wishes, plans and fears out on the table – a vital step in planning for the future, since (as we often remind our seminar guests and radio listeners), aging is truly a family affair. In fact, we feel so strongly about this often-forgotten aspect of retirement planning that we place special emphasis in our LifePlanning Seminars on family communications. A LifePlan, which is our term for a truly comprehensive retirement plan, needs to take your family, your money, your housing, your health, and your legal protection into account. With a LifePlan in place, your prospects for a bright and fruitful retirement are far more likely to come to pass.

We hope you’ll accept our invitation to find out more by joining Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar. These popular, information-packed sessions with Rajiv are absolutely free. For details and online registration, click here, or contact us during the week. We’re looking forward to meeting you.

(originally reported at

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