Three generations, one home

Growth rate doubles for dwellings with grandparents, parents, and kids - bucking independent-living trend.

Households brimming with three generations call up images of an era when the more hands a family had, the better its chance of survival.

But for Jessica Lawrence, a separated mother of two, it's just as imperative now. Childcare costs, monthly rent for her Pittsburgh apartment, and electric bills were swallowing her pay from a retail job.

"I put it off to the point where I couldn't keep going anymore," Ms. Lawrence says. So she moved her kids in with her parents, joining millions of Americans returning to multigenerational living. The number of American households with three or more generations living under the same roof rose 38 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to a new report from the United States Census Bureau.

Multigenerational households still represent a small percentage of US living arrangements. But the increase - more than double the growth of US households overall - shows that many Americans are starting to reverse the long-term pattern of living independently, experts say.

Both the longevity of seniors and their desire to live in age-integrated communities plays a role in multigenerational living. Many times unmarried mothers will move back with their parents. Immigration from countries where the cultural norm is to live with extended families is also a factor.

But many experts say it is a trend that, even with positive byproducts, is driven in large part by financial strain.

"There were some winners and some losers in the 1990s economy," says Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "This is not happening because of family sentiment. It's happening because the middle generation needs help."

From 1990 to 2000, multigenerational households increased from 3 million to 4.2 million, representing 3.9 percent of all US households. Nearly two-thirds of three-generation households include the householder as grandparent, living with the child and grandchild generation. About a third include households where the parent generation is the householder, living with both a grandparent and grandchild.

That many in the parent generation appear to be moving in with their parents is a reflection of the high cost of living today, says Frances Goldscheider, a professor of sociology at Brown University. When home prices are stable, families tend to separate, she says. As soon as they spike, "it is harder and harder for people to live independently."

In some cases, grandparents are moving in with their children, as older people live longer, healthier lives - sometimes outliving their resources. But parents are also moving in with their parents because seniors tend to have more resources, especially those who bought homes before prices surged, Dr. Cherlin says.

The Census Bureau did not break down data by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. But immigration might be playing a role in the uptick, suggests Donna Butts, the executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes intergenerational public policy and programs.

"As families immigrate to this country, it is more part of the norm to stay together as it was in this country when it was first settling," she says.

Although higher mortality rates meant that life spans did not overlap as much as they do today, families were far less mobile in the 18th century, tending to stick in clusters. With industrialization, Americans gravitated to economic opportunities in faraway cities. But decades-old customs are changing, Ms. Butts says. Retirement communities have disillusioned many seniors and growing numbers are opting to retire where they lived working lives, or near - or with - their kids, she says.

Patricia McConnell moved in 1999 to an apartment adjacent to the house where her daughter and son-in-law, and their three young children live in Waltham, Mass. She moved mostly for convenience, she says: Her daughter was expecting her third child and urged her mother to move in. She had some reservations, though.

"I didn't want to lose my independence," Ms. McConnell says. But the benefits have outweighed any initial trepidation. She bathes the grandchildren, helps them with their homework, and three generations share a meal together most evenings. "It creates all kinds of bonds," she says.

Such living arrangements might be easier than in the past. In terms of politics, education, and social views, the generation gap is closing, Dr. Goldscheider says.

"When people have very different values, it is harder to live together," she says.

In fact, Vern Bengtson, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, says that families are the most cohesive they have been in history. But others say it remains to be seen whether this is a long-term trend. Multigenerational households can aggravate tensions, Cherlin says. And as parents get more stable jobs, they are likely to find their own homes, he says.

"Americans like to be independent," Cherlin says. "They like to be near their relatives, but not living with them."

Ms. Lawrence plans on moving into her own home once she finishes college and can support her family.

"I'm grateful to my parents, but I would love to own my own apartment, have my own pots and pans," she says. "It's a little bit like living out of the guest room."

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