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Make Room For Grandparents and Boomerangs

March 31, 2010

The number of Americans living in multigenerational households grew by 2.6 million from 2007 to 2008 and continues to rise, according to a Pew Research Study.

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Make Room For Grandparents and Boomerangs

Does that nifty new floor plan of yours have enough bathrooms? It's a question that may be worth revisiting in light of a recent study by the Pew Research Center that shows that the extended family is making a comeback.

Analyzing Census data, Pew researchers found that in 2008, 49 million Americans (about 16%) lived in a household that contained at least two adult generations, up from 28 million in 1980.

This 33% increase over the past three decades represents a significant reverse trend, considering multigenerational households declined by more than half between 1940 and 1980, from 25% to 12%.

Now, the age of the relatively smaller nuclear family household could be waning as a result of cultural expectations and sobering economic constraints. Rising immigrant populations are certainly one contributor. Asians currently account for 25% of all multigenerational households, researchers found, followed by blacks (23%) and Hispanics (22%).

Whites represent only 13% of such households, and their share of the total population continues to shrink. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported 2010 as the tipping point year when more babies born in the U.S. are expected to be minority than white.

The fact that today's young adults tend to marry later in life, combined with the recession, may also be driving up the number of multigenerational homes. The average American man now weds for the first time at age 28; for women, the median age is 26. Put in context, this means that both genders are now getting hitched about five years later than they were in 1970.

As a result, there are more unmarried 20-somethings floating around in the general population, and many of them are finding the prospect of living at home with Mom and Dad pretty sensible--particularly at a time when economic conditions are making it harder to find a job, much less qualify for a mortgage. In 1980, just 11% of adults ages 25 to 34 lived in multigenerational households. Now, more than 20% do.

High unemployment and rising foreclosures are no doubt compelling many Americans to rethink the benefits extended family households. A Pew analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that as of 2009, 37% of 18- to 20-year-olds were either unemployed or out of the workforce--the highest share in this age group in four decades. This finding dovetails with a separate 2009 Pew survey which revealed similar results: among 22- to 29-year-olds, one in eight said that the recession had prompted them to boomerang back home after living on their own.

The aging of America is beginning to shape the housing landscape as well. The share of adults aged 65 and older living with their kids or grandkids is now about 27%, up from 17% in 1980. Demographers cite "kin availability" as a compelling proposition when life circumstances change due to widowhood, declining health or financial constraints. Many older adults with health or mobility limitations are finding that having an adult child serve as an informal caregiver is more financially viable than an assisted living community.

Gender breakdowns tend to vary by age, however, with men more likely to live in multigenerational households when they are younger. The study found that 22% of men between the ages of 25 and 34 live in such households, compared to 18% of women, but then the ratio flips. Some 23% of women between the ages of 55 and 64 live in a multigenerational household, compared to only 18% of men. This discrepancy is similar among Americans who are 75 and older – a reflection, at least in part, that women tend to outlive men.

Of the 49 million Americans who currently live in a multigenerational residence, 47% live in a household made up of two adult generations in the same family (with the youngest adult at least 25 years old). Another 47% live in a household with three or more generations of family members under one roof. Some 6% live in a "skipped generation" household made up of a grandparent and grandchild, but no parent.

The primary breadwinner and head of household tends to be the older adult in about 75% of cases, the report found. However, that hierarchy begins to shift when the parent is 65 or older.

What about all those market predictions forecasting the rise of the single home buyer? Interestingly, the study found it to be just as viable a trend as the multigenerational household.

Researchers noted a steady rise over the past century in the number of single-person households, which in 1900 accounted for just 1.1% of U.S. households. Today, that situation represents 10.3% of all households.

In terms of an age breakdown for this type of household, just 4.6% of young adults (ages 18 to 24) live alone, down from 5.7% in 1980. Singles are more prevalent in the 65+ population, although their numbers have declined slightly with the recession. The number of 65+ adults living alone peaked at 28.8% in 1980 and is now about 27.4%.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor for BUILDER.