More families find three generations living under the same roof
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Families are coming back together in ways this nation has not seen in 50 years.
Multiple generations of the same family are finding themselves living under one roof, as children take longer to leave home, grandparents care for grandchildren and adult children help care for their aging parents.
Since bottoming out around 1980, the trend has risen to a 50-year high point because of more people in need of help after losing jobs, filing for bankruptcy, facing foreclosure or having their savings wiped out in the stock market.
As of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of Census data.
Those numbers are believed to be even higher today.
"This is a trend we will see increase in the immediate future," said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and leading author of the multigenerational family study.
In the past, it was fairly common for multiple generations to share the same roof.
The fictitious Walton family had three generations living together in the hit 1970s TV series set in the Virginia mountains during the Great Depression. Even so, there were only 32 million multigenerational families in the 1940s compared with nearly 50 million today.
Even the White House now qualifies as a multigenerational household with the president, first lady, their two daughters and girls' grandmother sharing the family living quarters.
The trend has found its way into the newspaper funny pages.
Cartoonist Ed Stein brings a modern twist to the comics page with his strip, "Freshly Squeezed," which looks at family togetherness after the economic collapse.
In the new strip -- which is running in the Post-Gazette through this week on a test basis -- Liz and Sam have it all: a happy marriage, a precocious preteen son and a house that's just the right size for the three of them. But when Liz's parents lose their retirement savings in the economic collapse, they're forced to move in with their grown children and grandchild.
The strip, launched in September, is based on Mr. Stein's own experience 20 years ago when his mother died and his then 80-year-old father decided to move in with him while he and his wife raised toddlers.
"It's not easy to try to balance a life where three generations are living under the same roof," said Mr. Stein, who lives in Denver. "I wanted to design a comic strip that touched the emotional reality of what people are experiencing.
"I hope it is emotionally honest about the issues that come up," he said.
Older adults, however, are not the age group most responsible for the overall rising trend. That distinction belongs to young adults ages 25 to 34 who have boomeranged back to live with their parents after being on their own.
Just 11 percent of young adults in this age group lived in multigenerational family households in 1980. By 2008, 20 percent did, according to Pew researchers.
"If there is a positive to this trend, it's that people and families realize we are interdependent and need each other," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United in Washington, D.C.
"Multigenerational family living is our roots. We will see a larger population of American families living in multigenerational households in the foreseeable future," she said, adding that even divorced people are cohabitating with ex-spouses now because they can't afford to move out.
The multigenerational household trend is a fact of life here as well as across the country.
More often these days, when families in the Pittsburgh area shop for new homes, they want more than anything else extra bedrooms and more living space to accommodate more family members.
"It's as if they know it's going to happen, and they want to plan ahead," said Robbins Bobbitt, an agent with Howard Hanna Real Estate. "Some of it might be due to the economy, and some of it is due to families pulling together to take care of each other."
She said many clients were asking for flexible space such as a gameroom that could do double duty, a first-floor office that could be converted to a bedroom, a first-floor master bedroom or a basement apartment.
Circumstances vary in each case. Grown children are moving back into their old rooms. Families are taking in Grandma and Grandpa. Down-and-out brothers and sisters need a chance to get back on their feet, and even out-of-work aunts and uncles are looking for a place to crash until the economy recovers.
These family reunions are not always happy occasions.
This week, a Hempfield man admitted to police that he shot his wife in the shoulder while they were arguing over a relative moving in. The 63-year-old man fetched a loaded .357-caliber Magnum from a cupboard and pointed it at his 58-year-old wife. He claimed he wanted only to scare her and that the shooting was an accident.
Multigenerational living arrangements work best when families come back together by choice, such as when elder parents move in to help care for a child, or so grown children can care for their own parents without traveling outside the home.
"They realize a richness in past family traditions and culture being passed to younger generations," Ms. Butts said.
The living arrangements are not always as positive when prompted by stressful circumstances.
Several families in the Pittsburgh area who live in multigenerational housing conditions declined to be interviewed for this report due to the embarrassment some family members felt regarding the economic reasons that forced them to move in with relatives.
There was a time when multiple generations living under the same roof was as normal as horse-drawn buggies. In 1940, about 25 percent of the population lived in a household with more than one generation.
But the extended family household fell out of favor in this country right after World War II when the suburbs developed and single-family homes proliferated.
By 1960, Pew researchers say, 15 percent of households in this country were multigenerational families. The number continued to drop until it hit its lowest level of 12.1 percent in 1980. From there, it's been inching back up.
"The reversal has taken place among all major demographic groups, and it, too, appears to be the result of a mix of social and economic forces," the Pew report said.
One factor, according to Pew researchers, has been a wave of immigration dominated by Latin Americans and Asians that began around the 1970s. These immigrants are more inclined to live in multigenerational households to establish themselves after arriving here.
But the trend accelerated among native-born Americans in recent years as the Great Recession took center stage. The Pew research showed that in 2008, 2.6 million more Americans were living in such a household than in 2007.
Census data shows Hawaii has the largest percentage of multigenerational family households because of the high cost of housing there and because it is a more culturally acceptable way of life.
First Published November 25, 2010 12:00 am