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The Changing American Family

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Sandwiches + boomerangs

Multigen Family: On the Rise

Why you should care

Our families are changing, but policy, design and bathtubs haven’t kept up. 

Moving in with Mom and Dad, or having them move in with you, or maybe inviting your grown spawn and their little spawn to shack up. For some Americans, these are a longed-for ideal; for others, a dreaded nightmare. Whatever your views, know this: The multigenerational household is on the rise. The nuclear family is on the outs.

Only 20 percent of Americans now live in households with two married parents who raise their own children. Meanwhile the multigenerational family has nearly caught up, with 60 million Americans living in one. That’s double the number in 1980, according to the Pew Center.

And yet the nuclear family remains a cultural norm, expressed in everything from our bathtubs to our zoning laws. According to advocates, we’re in for some major adjustment pains.

It makes me wonder if this post-World War II experiment with the nuclear family wasn’t an aberration.

“Financial challenges and demographic changes are reshaping American families, period,” says Sarita Gupta, who co-directs Caring Across Generations, a policy and advocacy group. “Boomerangs” are the adult children of boomers who come back home. Those in the “sandwich generation” might find themselves caring for aging parents, on the one hand, and growing little ones, on the other. Sometimes multigen creates economies of scale and helps with caregiving. “Multigenerational households are ripe with the opportunity to think about how we care for one another, and they lend themselves toward a lot of the challenges that different parts of the family are facing.”

The share of Americans in multigenerational households has risen to levels not seen since the early 1950s, but with a big difference: These days, it’s younger adults driving the pattern. Back then, it was older ones.

Many factors account for the rise of multigenerational households. They include the erosion of heteronormativity, young people putting off marriage, and more Asians and Latinos immigrating — the nuclear family never took off in developing countries like it did here. Meanwhile, the financial crisis had many folks seeking shelter with family members. College diploma holders graduated jobless. Older people suffer job losses, wage dips, foreclosures and early retirement. Some of them moved in with their parents, siblings or older children.

Indian family in livingroom

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But a main driver is structural economic changes — especially women joining the workforce. The nuclear family norm assumed that men would work for money in offices and factories, and women’s work was taking care of the kids and the house. As more women left home to work — some 58 percent of women participated in the workforce in 2012, compared to 38 percent in 1963, according to the Department of Labor — a big caregiving gap has emerged.

A paper forthcoming in the journal Urban Lawyer notes the decline of the nuclear family in suburbs, which have become more diverse economically and demographically. In 1950, more than 50 percent of households consisted of two parents, married, raising their own children. By 2012, only 20 percent of households conformed to the archetype.

[Multigenerational living] offers a lot of potential for informal caregiving between younger and older people…

“It makes me wonder if this post-World War II experiment with the nuclear family wasn’t an aberration,” says Mildred Warner, a co-author of the journal article and Cornell sociologist who studies urban planning. “When you think about the long trend of human history — weren’t we always in multigenerational households?”

The rise in multigenerational living might be partly the product of economic duress, but it’s not bad news, says Warner: “It offers a lot of potential for informal caregiving between younger and older people — especially now that everyone else is working.” That, she says, “could do a lot to improve family well-being and reducing stress.”

One ideal: granny flat, or accessory flat, with separate entrances and shared communal space. Although housing developer Lennar unveiled “NextGen” housing models plans for multigenerational living, granny flats are still prohibited by certain zoning codes.

Older parents’ homes might also require retrofits, like zero-step entryways, ground-floor bathrooms and widened doorways. But environmental gerontologst Esther Greenhouse says such changes benefit everyone. Strollers don’t much like stairs, either, and we’re all going to get older and less mobile someday.

Greenhouse says the elevated bathtub — designed for the elderly — can be good for the whole family. It’s easier to bathe children in one, and they’re less dangerous for all. “When you think about it, why does anyone need to step up and down in a wet, slippery environment?” she says.

People like Warner and Greenhouse are trying to encourage intergenerational mixing. Retired older adults can help care for young children or around the house, and the kids can do their part: They do keep you young, after all. School buses can double as elder transport, and schoolyards as parks.

Still making it work can be tough, especially when a parent is infirm. We’re one of the few developed countries without federal paid sick days and family leave, Gupta points out. That means little support for the sandwich generation, usually women, who are caring for parents, children and often trying to work, but instead “aging into sheer poverty,” warns Gupta. A policy rethink is in order, she says, including social-security and tax credits for family caregivers, paid sick days and childcare.

Gupta says the issue resonates with both left and right. “Everyone has a care story, and everyone sees the writing on the wall.” Where policy discussions get stuck, she says, is “how to pay for all of this, including the long-term care we need.”

Budgeting for a growing family has never been easy. But at least these days, policymakers are starting to think less Ozzie and Harriet and more All in the Family.

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Meet The Author Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia writes about justice, policy and many other things for Ozy…AND makes an exception for oysters.

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