The rise of the multigenerational family.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 25 2010 6:52 AM

Bunking Too Long With Parents, Grandparents, In-Laws? Tell Us About It.

The rise of the multigenerational family.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In his memoir of his Depression boyhood, Growing Up, Russell Baker writes about how he, his sister, and his newly widowed, destitute mother moved into the home of her younger brother and his wife for "a few months." As the economy continued to fail, the months turned into years, during which the uncle and aunt, who turned the dining room into their bedroom, added their two children to the mix. Eventually they were joined by the "jobless and penniless" Uncle Charlie. "There was more to come," Baker writes. "Just around the corner was not prosperity, but Uncle Hal."

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Fortunately, we're not in a second depression. But as job creation continues to sputter, more and more American families are finding themselves living like the Baker clan, with family members bunking in basements and once-fledged college graduates returning to their childhood nests. So at DoubleX, we want to hear your stories, as they are unfolding, about forming new, expanded households because of economic necessity. Tragic or comic, we want them all.

The practice has become more common, according to a recent Pew Research Center report titled "The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household." Using their definition, a multigenerational household consists of adult children living with parents or in-laws, or three generations living together, or grandparents living with grandchildren. In 1940, the report finds, about one-quarter of the population lived in multigenerational households. But as soon as Americans got some money in their pockets, they stuffed their belongings into a suitcase and fled the extended family. By 1980, only 12 percent of Americans were living in multigenerational homes.

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Since the 1980s, that slowly started to reverse for a variety of reasons. One was an increase in the number of immigrants—multigenerational family arrangements were cheaper and traditional. Another was the delayed age of first marriage. Many young people enjoyed free room, board, and laundry service while waiting to set up their own households.

But there's nothing like bad times to hasten the return to living in one big, cozy family. Between 2007—when the recession began—and 2008, 2.6 million more Americans were finding themselves living with relatives, the Pew report found. That meant a record number of Americans, 49 million—more than 16 percent of the population, were living in such households. Over the last two years, there's been an 11.6 percent increase in the number of multi-family households.

As joblessness has dragged on, people's living arrangements attest to how difficult it is to be a young person looking for work. This New York Timesstory points out that census figures from last year show the number of people aged 25 to 34 who are living with their parents rose 8.4 percent to 5.5 million. Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in." And these young, and maybe not quite so young, people are lucky their parents didn't turn their old bedrooms into gyms. The official poverty rate in this younger age group is now 8.5 percent. Had these young adults not returned home, it would have been an astounding 42.8 percent.

But this recession is not just a story of grown children returning home. It's about families taking in grandma and grandpa, siblings shacking up, friends letting friends have a place to crash, even exes finding themselves living together under one roof. Of course, economic duress forcing people to live together is an entertainment staple. The Odd Couple, two divorced men saving enough to pay alimony by sharing an apartment, spawned its own industry. The new NBC series Parenthood features a thirtysomething daughter with teenagers who moves back in with her parents because of financial troubles.

Russell Baker got a memoir out of his extended-family Depression childhood. Here at DoubleX, we'd like to let you tell your stories of communal living during the great recession. Tell us how the decision came about and what the process has been like. Did you have to get rid of most of your possessions? Do you feel like a guest or an intruder? How did you integrate two households? What are the best and worst aspects of this? Is a pleasant surprise that Uncle Hal makes buttermilk pancakes or that your teenage niece is a great math tutor for the younger kids? Have people come to blows over empty toilet paper rolls in the bathroom? What are the most unexpected, funny, or depressing things to come out of living together?

Please submit your stories to slatemovein@gmail.com. We will use your name unless you specify otherwise. Thank you.

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