Change the Narrative On Multigenerational Living

Grandparents with their granddaughters stand on a beach looking at the water.
Image Source: RODNAE Productions / Pexels

As someone born and raised in New England, I found the history of multigenerational living in the U.S. fascinating and offer a quick overview below.

In the 19th century, multigenerational living was common in the U.S. It made sense economically: most families worked in farming and relied on family members to manage the land. It also ensured the land would be passed down generationally with ease (Continuity and Change). But after World War II, the idea of extended-family households became less popular.

Younger workers moving to cities for work couldn’t afford to find housing for their entire family, so many left their loved ones behind. 1935’s Social Security Act, which provided monthly payments to the elderly, gave many the financial backing to provide for their own needs, including housing. Companies formed to create elder care facilities that could replace the care that a multigenerational family once provided. In 1940, about 25% of the population lived in a multigenerational household. By 1980, just 12% did (Pew Research).

TAKE ACTION

Give to fundraisers near you for people trying to meet rent. Lack of housing is a major driver for people to move in with loved ones. Start by researching “rent relief” in your city, or contact a local mutual aid network.

Do some research on the history of multi-family units where you live. Do you see similar trends as those outlined in this piece?

Consider: what stories shaped your understanding of what a family unit should look like? What examples of multigenerational living have you seen in the media?

But there were also insidious reasons for this shift rooted in racism and classism. From the 1890s through the 1920s, there was a concerted effort to minimize multigenerational living for certain groups of people. In New England, three-deckers, or buildings with three units, were built rapidly in the early 1900s as cities grew. These buildings were attractive to low-income and working-class people, especially the influx of immigrants flocking to the area during this time. (New England Historical Society). 

In 1894, a group of Harvard graduates created the Immigration Restriction League to advertise the “dangers” of immigrants. As part of their campaign, they made three-decker homes a symbol of immigrants and decried them as unsafe, which quickly influenced public sentiment…and policy. In 1917, the Providence Community of Commerce stated that “other peoples” were realizing “it lowers one’s social standing to be rated as a three-decker dweller” (Providence Magazine). By 1927, nearly every state in New England had established rules and regulations to make it virtually impossible to build a triple-decker (New England Historical Society). 

This wasn’t just a localized initiative. As states addressed housing on their own, the National Housing Association launched federal guidelines for the “best” type of housing: single-family homes in suburban communities and subsidized public housing in urban ones. What followed was a concerted effort to build neighborhoods around single-family homes and the creation of restrictive policies and practices to ensure that people of color were excluded from owning them. This also accelerated the development of public housing, an issue we’ll tackle in a future piece.

A social stigma has surrounded multigenerational living ever since. Living at home after reaching adulthood implies someone can’t be successful on their own (BuzzFeed). Elderly family members living with their children are labeled a burden. But sentiments vary widely between cultures. A study from the AARP found that 50% of Latin Americans and 38% of Asians see benefits from living in multigenerational households, compared to just 30% of Americans and 32% of Europeans. In 2016, of 64 million people, only 16% of those living in multigenerational households in the U.S. were white (AARP). 

The Great Recession of the late 2000s prompted multigenerational living to rise through to the start of the pandemic (Pew Research). With the health and economic impact of COVID-19, growing support for remote learning, a rapidly aging population, and a lack of affordable homes, I’d expect this trend to continue. I interviewed several people who have recently adopted multigenerational living because of the pandemic. Their views on the switch are often influenced by their family’s cultural practices. Matthew chose to relocate to care for his father battling Parkinson’s disease just before the pandemic started.

Although the concept was difficult for his boss to understand, he noted that the Mexican side of his family commonly lived together. Whitney’s parents moved in with her to help her care for her two elementary-aged children about a year ago. This was a major relief for her, as it helped alleviate the pressures of child-care while working from home and gave Whitney an opportunity to care for her parents more directly as they aged.

Whether by choice or by necessity, multigenerational living will become more prevalent in our society in the decades to come. Our work is to ensure that it doesn’t become stigmatized or shamed but is a form of family structure that we embrace alongside the ones dictated to us historically. Let’s allow our definition of family to evolve.

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