For more Americans, Grandma is moving back in

A record 49 million Americans lived in extended-family households in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. The recession, immigration, and delayed marriage are among the factors.

Photo illustration/Newscom
The Pew Research Center released a report on Thursday stating that 16 percent of the population in America lived in multi-generational households in 2008.

Tens of millions of Americans are sharing their quarters with grandparents, adult children, and grandchildren – and it’s not just because of the economy, a report Thursday by the Pew Research Center shows.

A record 49 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, lived in multi-generational households in 2008 – up roughly 33 percent from 1980. Between 2007 and 2008 alone, the study reported, the number of people living in extended-family households grew by 2.6 million.

“The multi-generational family household – the family form that had been prevalent up through century ago, then fell out of favor – has come back,” says Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.

And although the recession is partly responsible, the trend also reflects societal and demographic changes such as increased immigration and delayed marriage.

“It’s a window into our times,” Mr. Taylor says. “This trend captures demographic change in terms of immigration and social and cultural changes. And it’s a reflection of the harsh impact of this recession.”

In 1940, 25 percent of Americans lived in extended-family households, according to the Pew report. That figure dropped steadily and bottomed out in 1980 at 12 percent.

Since then, extended-family households have made a significant comeback, across all demographic groups. It’s even evident at the White House, where President Obama’s mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, lives to help care for the Obama children, Sasha and Malia.

Several factors are at work in expanding American households, Taylor says.

With its high levels of unemployment and a foreclosure crisis in which millions of people lost their homes, the recession played a major role in driving Americans to bunk together with family, says Taylor.

“The acceleration of the [household] trend in the last few years almost surely seems recession-related,” he says.

Another factor is immigration.

“[The trend] is being driven by Hispanics and Asians especially,” Taylor says. “Immigrants throughout history tend to be more inclined to live in extended-family households for cultural and economic reasons.”

Hispanics (22 percent), Asians (25 percent), and blacks (23 percent) all have significantly higher rates of extended-family living than do whites, the report shows.

The most significant sector of the population driving the trend, however, is young adults.

In 1980, just 11 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds lived in multi-generational households. In 2008, that figure had risen to 20 percent.

“The biggest turnaround we’ve seen is among young adults," says Taylor. “Among this age group, the share of people living in such households has doubled.”

Young adults are having a particularly rough time with the recession in terms of joblessness. “Unemployment has hit young adults more than any other age cohort,” he says.

Some 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were unemployed or out of the workforce in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The other big change is the later age of first marriage, Taylor adds: “That creates a larger population of unmarried young adults who are more likely to live with their parents.”

Interestingly, 20 percent of adults 65 or older now live in multi-generational households – the exact same proportion as young adults.

Many older people lost a big chunk of their retirement funds in the recession, and they also have baby-boomer children (a large population group) they can move in with, says Taylor.

He says he expects to see the trend continue as stretched federal resources drive an aging population to the safety net of extended-family living.

“The 20th century was a great century for older Americans,” Taylor says. Social Security, Medicare, and advances in healthcare and science helped people live longer and more prosperously, he says.

“Will the social safety net for older Americans be as strong in the future?” he asks. “If not, might families play the role of the ultimate safety net?”

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