Multi-Generation Households on the Rise

On December 19, 1971, “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” aired. It was the TV pilot of a series that would span nine seasons, a saga that would tell the story of what was to become the most iconic extended family in American TV history, “The Waltons.” The show’s most memorable moment was the signature scene that closed each episode, the Walton family “Goodnight!” We’d see the black silhouette of a house against a starry sky, with one or two small lights flickering in upstairs windows. And then, one by one, the voices began chiming out in the darkness: “Goodnight, John Boy!” “Goodnight, Grandpa!” There’s fond teasing, some laughter and then … silence. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.

In the 1940s, multi-generation families accounted for 25% of the entire US population, but after WWII, the picture began to change. By 1980, only 12% of families in America housed grandparents, parents, kids and grandchildren under the same roof. The nuclear two-adult households that developed along with the sprawling new suburbs spawned a nation of insular families.

In developing countries, you are far more likely to find multi-generation households and extended families. A growing body of literature on the economic importance of the extended family shows that the connective role that family plays in the lives of its members fills gaps created by the absence of mandated social safety nets. In places where the government can’t step in and provide for its citizens, inter-generational support plays a particularly important role in establishing early life health and well-being.

Science has its own theories on the advantages of multifamily living. A major focus in their studies has been sleep patterns. You probably noticed that grandparents tend to go to bed early and get up early. We chalk it up to old age, but survival instincts may play a bigger part. Researchers studied the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer society in northern Tanzania that lived in groups of 20 to 30 people in an environment without artificial lighting or climate control — conditions very close to that of early humans. Over the course of 220 hours of observation, there were only 18 minutes in total where all members of any group were asleep at the same time. Scientists theorize that this unbroken watch was essential in ancient times. Danger could arise at any hour. If someone was always awake, there was always a voice to sound the alarm. The different sleep patterns of the elderly may have their roots in thousands of years of adaptive evolution.

Biologists have also long wondered why women live so long after the onset of menopause. In terms of evolutionary theory, losing fertility should be the end of the line. Once breeding stops, evolution can no longer select for genes that promote survival. But a possible explanation is the “grandmother hypothesis.” Since grandmothers can improve the odds of survival for their children’s offspring, they ensure their own usefulness in the evolutionary line. Skeptics claim that the empirical evidence doesn’t play out. But those skeptics have probably never lived in an extended family themselves.

I spoke with Dena Quilici, who grew up in a large family where her grandfathers were a constant presence and her sisters and aunts lived next door. As an adult, her own mom was right upstairs in the same building. Having grown up in a single family house, I wondered if having so many relatives right in your face was oppressive. But families that live together also know how to keep their boundaries. According to Dena, “I had the best of both worlds. My mom was there whenever I needed her, but she knew when to give me space, and my kids adored her.” Dena never had to worry about care, or enough love, for her children. It gave her the freedom to pursue her own goals in life.

We may now have an opportunity for a return to those times. In 2010, the percentage of multi-generation families in the US rose to 16%, and in 2014, data showed that  a record 60.6 million Americans — almost one in five – now lived in multi-generation households. Analysts cite demographic changes and subsequent need as the reason. Kids are delaying marriage longer, people are living longer and a lack of affordable housing has spurred many families to share their household with parents. Millennials are about one-third of the driving force behind this trend. With the built-in day care for children and additional help at home, parents have less stress and more quality time with their children.

Financial need may have driven the growth spurt in extended families, but this is one silver lining that far outweighs the cloud that carried it in.

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