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.

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    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?
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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.

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.

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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.

Moreover, when you step back and look at the big picture and the moving picture, it’s clear that boomerang kids are just another symptom of the greater cultural change affecting American society as we enter the 21st century: that is, the reunification of the extended family.

Grandparents are also moving back in with their children. Three-generation households are on the rise in America, according to the Census Bureau. The Pew Research Center estimates that 16 percent of the population – 49 million Americans – lived in multigenerational housing in 2008, up from 28 million in 1980. The fundamental point is that people are moving back together again because the grand experiment of the World War II generation hasn’t worked. Three generations belong together, and not just for financial reasons.

Fundamentally, humans are psychologically and physiologically designed and have evolved to live this way. We’ve survived by living in such extended family arrangements. We are happiest in such groups. And, we are now quickly learning that other institutions (companies, unions, governments, religious organizations, etc.) ultimately cannot take care of us. Only our families can and will.

Up until the 1950s in this country and in northern Europe, three (sometimes even four) generations lived together in multigeneration families. It’s still that way in almost all of the rest of the world.

In prehistoric times these family groupings included all the living descendants in either the male or female line. Each family was practically self-sufficient with men providing most of the food, and women taking care of household duties, children, and elderly parents. The whole family had to cooperate in order to survive. Eventually, families organized themselves into clans and, still later, into cooperative tribes for protection. Even when people began depending on local, state, and national governments for protection, and on persons outside the family for food and education, multigenerational living survived.

The Industrial Revolution began to shift these patterns. People moved from farms to cities where new factories were being built. In the cities, people no longer worked together in extended family units. New kinds of jobs called for individual skills. This meant that workers frequently moved away from their local communities and kinship groupings to live near their places of employment. Extended families began to dissipate in favor of nuclear families consisting of married couples and their children.

Women still stayed at home to raise the children. However, with the new mobility, multigenerational households declined, along with the expectation that children cared for elderly parents in their own homes. In the 20th century, this led to assisted living and skilled nursing facilities as new living arrangements to serve the needs of the infirm elderly.

The housing debacle – revisited

Housing also evolved. Single-family homes sprung up to accommodate the new and independent family unit. This tradition of single-family dwellings accelerated in the United States after the end of World War II. Since then, America’s residential landscape has shifted from city or small-town to suburban living. A general prosperity, cheap land rendered from new agricultural technologies, easier building techniques, and access to automobiles all combined to initiate the development of suburban tracts of single-family homes for nuclear families. Americans value these homes for the space, security, status, and privacy they provide.

The single-family suburban home did work for a time, while mothers stayed at home to raise children and life spans were shorter. However, with the advent of extended life expectancy, and with both parents working, the single-family home for nuclear families is no longer meeting the needs of our changing population.

It’s no wonder that the current so-called economic malaise began with housing in 2007. That’s about the time the economic system began to realize that the American housing stock is actually worth less because it doesn’t fit the coming needs of the marketplace.

America’s elderly population is now growing at a moderate rate. But soon into this century, the rate will accelerate. According to census projections, the elderly population will double between now and the year 2050, to close to 79 million. By then, as many as 1 in 5 Americans could be elderly.

In order to adjust the housing stock of the country to reflect the baby boomers’ retirement and the associated growth in multigenerational living arrangements, changes will be required in long-existing and mostly local housing and building codes and associated ordinances. The main battle line in this political fight is over accessory apartments, popularly called “granny flats.” Built adjacent to larger houses, they can provide living spaces for adult children or grandparents. They offer both proximity and privacy. Public debate and political battles are being fought, won, and lost around the country over making changes in codes that not only allow for, but actually promote, the construction of accessory apartments in existing neighborhoods and in new developments.

Accessory apartments produce two kinds of complaints. First, physical impacts, such as increased parking and traffic and architectural changes in buildings, are often seen as disruptive to neighborhoods. The second sort relates to social and cultural issues. That is, accessory apartments deviate from the traditional ways of looking at housing, family, and the neighborhood. It stands for a change in the way the single-family house is used, a departure from the conventional meanings connected to residential zoning categories.

While builders and architects do complain about zoning constraints and such, their own practices are often obstacles to housing appropriate for the new century. They talk more about features that will sell to consumers, but won’t really serve them. For example, consider a ritzy Newport Beach, Calif., neighborhood where folks have been sold $2 million homes with granny flats at the tops of stairs! How's granny going to navigate those steep steps?

What America must do

Fast-rising life expectancies, the growing costs of elder care, the increasing need for child care, the frustrating lack of affordable housing, and the new disconnectedness – all are producing unfamiliar challenges for families all around America. Fortunately, our aforementioned 20th century dalliance with nuclear families and white-picket-fence suburbia is fast winding down. The “social avalanche” of elderly baby boomers will force Americans back to the familiar family form of multigenerational households.

America must spur the comeback of accessory apartments and the flexibility of mixed neighborhoods with respect to size, value, and use. Now that the housing market has crashed, there’s some time to reflect on the future and to design communities and homes that will accommodate a fast-graying America in innovative ways.

John L. Graham, professor emeritus of marketing and international business at the University of California at Irvine, is coauthor (with Sharon Graham Niederhaus) of “Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living.”

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