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Multigenerational Living is Making a Comeback as Families Rediscover This Once-Common Living Arrangement

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Not that many years ago, it was normal in the U.S. (and even more so in other cultures) for several generations of a single family to live under the same roof. In bygone days, mom and dad might have kids in the house and also provide shelter for aging parents – maybe even grandparents. Through the years, however, that common and (some would say) healthy living arrangement seemed to vanish.

Or did it? In this recent article from NextAvenue, freelance writer Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell quotes a variety of sources to demonstrate that multigenerational living is in the midst of a comeback. Whether driven by COVID, a rough economy, or nostalgia, census data suggests that the practice of several generations sharing a home, common in the early part of the 20th century, might become increasingly so in the early decades of the 21st. Let’s take a look.

A Visit Turned Into a Permanent Multigenerational Home

Fivecoat-Campbell begins her NextAvenue article with the story of Sue Smith Moak and her family. Moak’s husband had passed away in 2014, leaving her living alone on a 54-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Realizing that this simply wasn’t going to be practical for her as a place to age alone, she started considering other locations to move to.

“I wanted adventure, not just for me, but for my kids and grandkids,” Moak says. “I wanted a place like I’d never lived before that offered different things to do.” After considering several places, Moak chose Pagosa Springs, Colorado, as her next home.

But what started as a fun place for her kids and grandkids to visit turned into a completely new living situation, as her daughter’s family—Sarah, husband Justin, and little Bixby—decided to leave the big-city life and move in. “The house I bought was big and it just made sense for us to live together,” says Moak.

Living in an Extended Family Was Once Common Practice

Fivecoat-Campbell spoke with Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for policies and programs that connect generations. Butts says extended families living together in the same household was common in the first part of the 20th century. The practice started a comeback in the first decade of the current century.

She explains, “There was a stigma that formed around the middle of the 20th century we call ‘the John Wayne Syndrome’ in which people felt like it wasn’t strong, and it was wrong if they needed each other. What people didn’t realize is we sometimes need support and that makes us stronger.” In other words, independent living has become interdependent living.

Multigenerational Living Bottomed Out in 1970

Richard Fry, a senior researcher for Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., explains that the stats bear out this shift: according to census data, in 1900, about 24 percent of the population lived in multigenerational households, a number that rose slightly by 1940.

Then, as the “John Wayne Syndrome” seemed to take hold, the percentage of Americans living in multigenerational households steadily decreased through 1970, when it hit a low of 7 percent. But it’s rising again. In fact, Fry says it has been rising sharply since 2001, from the bursting of the tech stock bubble through the Great Recession and on to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fivecoat-Campbell writes, “The Pew Research Center estimated in 2021 that 18 percent of Americans, or 60 million people, lived in multigenerational households.”

Fry has a few explanations for this. First, that the phenomenon reflects young adults delaying marriage and living with their parents, along with parents sharing homes with their adult children. It also reflects the growing number of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who are culturally more likely to live in multigenerational homes. The data shows that the descendants of European immigrants are the least likely group to live in extended family households. 

“We really thought the numbers would decrease after the Great Recession,” says Butts. “But many older people, especially, found it helped with loneliness and families stayed together.”

Having a Big House Helps

In another case study, 54-year-old Lisa Cini of Columbus, Ohio once lived in a multigenerational household with her grandmother, parents, husband, and teenage children. She even wrote a book on the subject called Hive: The Simple Guide to Multi-Generational Living.

Cini and her husband bought and remodeled a large colonial home to fit the entire family comfortably, including converting the attached garage into a “grandma suite”. Everyone had their own bedroom and bathroom, too.

“I think the main challenge was having four women in the house, which included my teenage daughter, and who got control of the kitchen,” laughs Cini.

Even after her grandmother passed away and her children left for college, the multigenerational living continued, as Cini and her husband bought a condo in the same building below her parents. “It’s really still as if we live together, although it is separate units,” says Cini.

One Key to Success: Respect Others’ Boundaries

“Multigenerational living works for many, but it’s not for everyone,” says Butts. And this seems to come down to clear and recognizable boundaries.

For Moak, one of the keys to the success of their living arrangement was having her own 500 square foot space including her own entrance, bathroom, and kitchenette. 

But it’s also true that Moak wasn’t a stranger to multigenerational living. Her grandparents lived with her parents for many years, which gave her a glimpse into how this arrangement could work. One of the most important elements was making sure to respect her daughter’s family as a separate unit while also spending time with them.

“They’re a complete family unit and I’m of a different generation and lived by myself for a few years before,” says Moak. “We each do things differently and it’s important to know where the boundaries are.”

Fivecoat-Campbell writes, “Moak, who is now 73, says it has been very beneficial for all parties. She shares her car with her son-in-law, saving costs for them. The help goes two ways; both Justin and Sarah have been available to help Moak with medical appointments.”

Bonding Across Several Generations

But all of the family members in Moak’s story agree that the biggest benefit has been the relationship Moak formed with grandson Bixby, who is now 11. She drops him off and picks him up from school, they go out for meals and on trips together, and just spend a lot of quality time.

“I had a very good relationship with my grandmother who lived with us when I was little,” says Moak. “Bixby and I do so many things together, it’s been the very best thing.”

Tips for Creating a Successful Multi-Generational Household

  • Establish boundaries. Ideally, this should be done from the outset, as early as possible. “It’s a hard conversation, but will help you avoid harder ones later,” Cini says. Make sure that this is communicated to everyone else involved, including siblings who don’t live with the family. “My siblings were just used to walking into my parents’ house and we had to explain to them that was no longer acceptable,” Cini adds.
  • Establish common areas and whether family will eat together. While Cini says that her family had to establish times for the teens to use the family room for gaming or watching television, and also made decisions beforehand about who would be keeping what kitchen tools, place settings, and so on, Moak says she doesn’t typically eat with her daughter’s family. “I like to eat early, and they like to eat late and that’s OK,” says Moak.
  • Respect the family unit. Moak’s daughter always invites her on outings with them. “Sometimes I go and sometimes not, I know they need time alone together as a family,” says Moak, who adds they have established a few traditions like cutting their Christmas tree together. Butts says it’s also important for grandparents not to interfere with the parenting of their grandchildren. “It’s important you don’t impose your parenting style on your adult children,” says Butts.
  • Make clear who pays bills and who does chores. While Cini and her husband didn’t need financial help, they still gave some control of the bills over to her parents and grandmother. “I think it makes them feel more a part of the household instead of feeling like they’re being taken care of,” says Cini. Also, everyone had their own designated household chores, including her grandmother, whose job was to fold laundry.
  • Keep expectations in check and lines of communication open: Butts says never expect anyone to change who they are. “If they’re a slob, they will likely remain so,” she says. “The important thing is to be able to talk about issues that arise.”

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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