Multi-Generational Family Households: Back to the Future

Extended families and multiple generations are increasingly living under one roof. Yet more evidence that we are going backwards: A new study published today by the Pew Research Center finds the "multi-generational American family household is staging a comeback."

Pew is not the first to come up with such findings -- other studies have also shown that Americans are reverting to mixed-generational living. Like Pew, they have noted the economic forces driving more extended families under one roof, such as job losses and home foreclosures. But the Pew study finds that, more than economic pressures, the trend towards multi-gen living is driven by "demographic changes that have been gathering steam for decades" -- a graying and increasingly multi-cultural populace.

According to the survey, as of 2008, "a record 49 million Americans" lived in a house that contained at least two adult generations "or a grandparent and at least one other generation." In percentage terms, we're talking about 16.1 percent of the total U.S. population, says Pew.

As I mentioned, no surprise that the twin demons of unemployment and foreclosure are helping to fuel this new trend. But the Pew report also says that "the big wave of immigration, dominated by Latin Americans and Asians, that began around 1970" is perhaps the biggest factor since, the report says, these groups are "more inclined than native-born Americans to live in multi-generational family households."

In addition, the country's 78 million Baby Boomers are starting to hit retirement age.

Interestingly, in some ways, this is not a "new" trend at all, but a return to our nation's not too distant past: In 1900, 57 percent of adults 65 and older lived in multi-generational family households. As the safety nets of Social Security and Medicare came into being, however, that rate dropped to just 17 percent by 1980 and 1990, according to the report. Now, multi-gen households are beginning to creep upward again -- to around 20 percent.

There's no doubt that the Great Recession has intensified any demographic trends to drive more family members together under one roof: According to Pew, which studied the latest Census data, in 2008, "2.6 million more Americans were living in (multi-generational family households) than had been doing so in 2007." That is an enormous increase in just one year by any measure.

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No TIme to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has written about real estate related issues for several years.

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