In my research for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I met wonderful people from 3-generational and 4-generational households who welcomed me into their homes and told me their stories about how they are living. Those accounts (as well as the stories of people living in all sorts of other ways) are at the heart of the book.
I also did lots of scholarly research for the book, as I tried to learn about how ways of living have changed over time. Here is some of what I learned about multigenerational households. I didn’t know any of these things before I started working on the book.
- We think of families from the late 19th and early 20th century as multi-generational, as in the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom from Want,” with three generations gathered around the Thanksgiving table. In fact, though, in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, the share of households that included someone 65 or older never topped 12 percent. That’s because lifespans were shorter and so the lives of grandparents and their grandchildren did not overlap for long. It was also because the grandparents had lots of children but could only live in one household, so their other grown children did not have their grandparents living with them.
- A twenty-year-old living in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandmother than a twenty-year-old in 1900 was to have a living mother. That means we have more opportunities to live in multi-generational households now than we did during times when such living was considered traditional.
- In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, older people were not often “taken in” by their children. Instead, they stayed in their own place. Most of their grown kids left the household, but typically one stayed.
- Over the past century, mothers have had fewer young girls or women within their own households who might be available to help with the kids. Between 1880 and 2000, the number of females within a household has declined, and those who are around are often preoccupied with jobs or school.
- Today, more than 20 percent of Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics live in multi-generational households, compared to only about 13 percent of whites. That is a recent phenomenon, though. Before 1940, more white than non-white people 65 and older lived in multi-generational households.
- Today, people who live in multigenerational households are typically less well-off financially than those who do not. However, that’s only been true since 1960. Before then, the better-off elders were more likely to live with family. Those elders owned the farm, the business, the house. The younger kin wanted to live with them. Once the younger generations began to leave the home to work in cities and towns, or to pursue an education, elders lost some of their power.
Generations photo available from Shutterstock