Surge in Multigenerational Households

Recession, aging, and immigration have led to record numbers of adult child-parent-grandparent homes.

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Fifty million Americans, including rising numbers of seniors, live in households with at least two adult generations, and often three. That's approaching one in six Americans -- a significant percentage. In a "forward to the past" finding, the Pew Research Center said the number of such households is reversing a century-old trend. Since the 1900s, it noted in a recent study, Americans have moved away from home when they reached adulthood, and generally they've stayed away. Likewise, the numbers of persons over the age of 65 who live alone had been on a 100-year upward curve.

[See The Best Mutual Funds for 2010.] In 1900, nearly 60 percent of seniors lived with adult children or other grown relatives, Pew said. Improving health and financial circumstances -- especially Social Security -- enabled older Americans to become more independent. The flip side of this trend is that only 6 percent of seniors lived alone a century ago. The figure rose steadily and peaked at nearly 29 percent in 1990. Since then, Pew said, it flattened out and then declined to 27.4 percent in 2008. That's the most recent year for which data are available, but it seems likely both new trends continued last year.

Unemployment and other economic pressures undoubtedly played a big role, causing adult children to move back home, and driving seniors to share living space with their grown children. But Pew also said demographic and cultural factors were at work.

Among younger Americans -- aged 18 to 29 -- roughly 37 percent were either unemployed or out of the work force in 2008, Pew said. That was the highest percentage in nearly 40 years. Younger people also are waiting much longer to marry. The median age for a first marriage has risen to 28 for men and 26 for women -- both about 5 years higher than in 1970.

Immigration also was cited. Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American immigrant households, Pew reported, include more multigenerational occupants than households of native-born Americans. "Hispanics (22 percent), blacks (23 percent and Asians (25 percent) are all significantly more likely than whites (13 percent) to live in a multigenerational family household," according to the Pew report, The Return of the Multigenerational Family Household. [See Best Affordable Places to Retire.]

The changing pattern of older persons living alone is occurring even as seniors' preference to remain independent grows. This desire to "age in place" is affecting demand for nursing homes and some other assisted living facilities. Many senior housing experts, however, say demand for their facilities will recover as the economy gets stronger. The key, they believe, is a recovery in local housing markets. This will allow seniors to sell their homes and use the proceeds to pay for the move into retirement housing complexes.

Pew says women aged 65 and up are much more likely to live alone than men. Nearly twice as many senior women did so in 2008 -- 34.4 percent versus 17.9 percent of older men. Pew did not explain how much of this was due to women's greater longevity. Pew also said the odds that a person would live alone rises as they age. "Nearly four in ten (38.7 percent) Americans 85 or older live by themselves," Pew said, "compared with only 21.9 percent of those ages 65 to 74. For the middle group -- those ages 75 to 84 -- about three in ten (31.2 percent) live by themselves."

Whether the declining percentage of older Americans living alone is a sustainable trend, there is less uncertainty about the adverse health effects of living alone. Pew's research supports other findings that people who live alone -- particularly men -- are more unhappy, stressed, and less healthy than seniors who live with others. Across the board, Pew found in a survey, they also spend less time with family, less time on hobbies, drive less, use the Internet less, and have more trouble sleeping than seniors who do not live alone.

Paul Taylor, Pew's project director for the study, said the research did not attempt to look at whether older people who chose to live alone were less healthy or more unhappy to begin with. "What's the chicken and the egg? We can't fully determine that," Taylor said. Clearly, people living alone because of a divorce or death of a spouse might well be inclined to have problems with solitary living. Taylor says it's also clear that older men suffer the most from living alone but are the happiest living with a spouse.

[See Retirement Community Economics Are Challenging.]