Multigenerational families, recession studies

The hows and whys of multigenerational living during the recession.

A new article in the NY Times describes the experience of multigenerational families living together during financial hard times. This pattern and its implications should be an important part of recession studies in the coming years.

Extended families may live together for what you could call positive or negative reasons. Positive reasons are the things people love about their families, such as togetherness, grandparent-grandchild closeness, caring for elders — the premodern family checklist, or, less pejoratively, the traditional family. The negative reasons are financial desperation from unemployment, lack of child care or healthcare, or the rent being too damn high.

We can’t know how many of the multigenerational households live together for each of these sets of reasons, and both may be represented in any family. But when the numbers trend upward during hard economic times, we suspect the change is more about negative than positive choices. And that is what the Census Bureau has reported:

The same pattern has been apparent among cohabiting couples, who seem to have moved in together with greater frequency during the recession. And there are positives and negatives there, too.

The increase is not brand new for this recession. Last spring the Pew Research Center reported on the “return of the multigenerational family household,” with evidence of an increase dating back to the 1980s, with spike upward in the last few years.

Before waxing too romantically about family togetherness, there are a number of problems to consider.

As I noted last spring, one issue we need to keep an eye on is the gender effect of changes in living arrangements. That’s  because carework arrangements and obligations follow from decisions about where and with whom people will live — decisions that are made outside the view of most demographic analysis, which relies on descriptions of where people already live (including my work on multigenerational families and children’s living arrangements).

Another problem is that, although it’s great that families take care of each other during hard times, the family-concentrated nature of poverty and insecurity are such that people who need help usually turn to people who can just barely help. In an attempt to ferret out different kinds of multigenerational arrangements, I diagrammed some individual households in the Current Population Survey that help make this point. Here’s one (with invented names):

In this case it appears that Bob and Mary, whose home it is, are playing host to both their daughter’s family – who hopefully are pitching in with expenses – as well as Mary’s elderly mother. With four employed adults and only one child, the extended family may not be desperate – and living together might be a smart move. But there isn’t a lot of room in the budget — or, probably, the house – to spare.

5 thoughts on “Multigenerational families, recession studies

  1. Are the data broken down by ethnicity? That is, are certain groups of people more likely in general to live in a multigenerational family household because it’s more culturally acceptable?


  2. Yes, it does vary by ethnicity, more or less according to cultural stereotype — Asians and Latinos have the highest rates of multigenerational households, followed by African Americans and then Whites. Some of that is economic, of course, but there is a cultural threshold, too.


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