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The New Economy

Solution to US debt woes isn't economic. It's social.

Economic problems like the housing debacle, Social Security and Medicare shortfalls have a social solution: stronger extended families.

By John L. GrahamContributor / July 27, 2011

A Jan. 10, 2009 file photo shows a a foreclosed home in Houston. Along with US debt woes, the housing crisis is billed as an economic problem. But what if it's a symptom of Americans' dawning recognition that the standard single-family home won't work for the multigenerational families of the future?

David J. Phillip/AP/File

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The clock is ticking loudly in Washington over the debt ceiling and long-term funding problems like Medicare and Social Security. Economists have blamed America's current economic malaise on (take your pick): overspending, greed, government regulation, government deregulation, subprime home mortgages, executive incentives, efficient markets theory, the business cycle, the Chinese, Alan Greenspan – the list goes on.

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But what if the economists have it completely wrong? Suppose for a minute or 10 that the so-called economic decline is simply a severe symptom of a deeper disease, a cultural shift.

The longest view of the progress of humankind suggests that governments have always been unfaithful to humans. The current example, our crumbling Social Security system, has really only succeeded in dividing families. In 1940, over 60 percent of elderly widows lived with their children. By 1990, that number had dropped to less than 20 percent.

Margaret Mead long ago pointed out that the family is the only institution that persistently supports us. What the economists are calling an economic problem is best understood as a cultural reversion to older living patterns. The reason? Our 20th century experiment with nuclear families has failed.

That’s the problem. Here’s the fix: Many Americans are rediscovering the importance of the extended family.

Return from the empty nest

Consider the phenomenon known as “boomerang kids.” Estimates vary, but according to the US Census Bureau, more than one-third of all Americans ages 20 to 34 are now living with their parents. That’s some 18 million young adults.

Not everybody is happy about this renewed family closeness, if headlines are anything to go by:

  • “Adult Children Moving Back Home: Don’t Let Them Derail Your Goals”
  • “The Coddling Crisis: Why Americans Think Childhood Begins at Age 26”
  • “The PermaParent Trap” (perhaps the scariest headline of all)

The negative headlines get attention, but they also cause angst for all of us, particularly the kids. And it`s not clear that they represent reality.

Three in four parents did not report being happier once their children moved out, according to a 2004 survey (.pdf) conducted for retirement-community developer Pulte Homes . Even among the 1 in 4 baby boomers who did report themselves being happier as empty nesters, that feeling seemed to decline with the length of time that the nest was actually empty :

  • 0-5 years since the children left: 27 percent feel happier
  • 6-10 years: 11 percent
  • 11+ years: 5 percent

Too bad the kids themselves missed the news that they’re missed.

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