More than 50 million Americans, including rising numbers of seniors, live in households with at least two adult generations, and often three. That's approaching 1 in 6 Americans—a significant percentage. The increases were driven largely by the Great Recession, with most of the gains occurring between 2007 and 2009. At the same time, economic and housing problems have resulted in low rates of migration and new household formation.
The big unknown is whether the slow and uneven economic recovery will halt or even reverse the rising numbers of multigenerational households. The stakes are big, especially for the housing industry and makers of home furnishings and appliances. There is roughly a two-year data lag, so the most current reports are still based on 2010 information. And they do not show any slowdown in the growth of multigenerational households.
In a "forward to the past" finding, the Pew Research Center has reported in several studies since 2010 that the number of multigenerational households has reversed a century-old trend. Since the 1900s, it notes, Americans have moved away from home when they reached adulthood, and generally they've stayed away. Likewise, the percentage of people over age 65 who live alone had been on a 100-year upward curve.
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 flipside 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 began declining after the recession.
In 1940, nearly 25 percent of Americans, or 32 million people, lived in multigenerational households. The percentage had fallen to 15 percent in 1960 and then to 12 percent in 1980, Pew said. "The number of Americans living in multigenerational households has been increasing steadily since 1980," it said. "Demographic forces such as delayed marriage and a wave of immigration have contributed to the increase." By 2007, the percentage had risen to 15.4 percent and in only two years had jumped to 16.7 percent in 2009, when more than 51 million Americans were living in households with two or more adult generations.
The biggest driver of the change was financial pressures on younger adults that caused them to move back into their parents' homes. "Without public debate or fanfare, large numbers of Americans enacted their own anti-poverty program in the depths of the Great Recession," Pew said. "This helped fuel the largest increase in the number of Americans living in multigenerational households in modern history."
Forced or not, Pew found that most people have benefitted economically from the trend and also looked favorably on the experience. The different generations have tended to pitch in to make ends meet, both financially and in terms of household chores and caregiving.
"Elderly persons may also benefit economically from multigenerational living arrangements," it added. "For those ages 75 to 84 in multigenerational households, the poverty rate was 6.6 percent in 2009, compared with 10.8 percent for those in other households. Similarly large differences exist for those ages 85 and older."
Whether or not 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 says. 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.