What's behind the dramatic rise in three-generation households?

November 7, 2018 by Natasha Pilkauskas, The Conversation

What's behind the dramatic rise in three-generation households?
Credit: Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Population Association of America (2018)
In a recent study, I discovered that the number of kids living with their parents and grandparents – in what demographers call a three-generation household – has nearly doubled over the past two decades.

Why has this been happening? And is it a good thing or a bad thing?

The answers are complex. The reasons for the trend are as broad as social forces – like a decline in marriage rates – to unique family circumstances, like the loss of a parent's job.

The trend is worth studying because by better understanding who live with, we can design better policies aimed at helping kids. Programs targeting kids usually overlook these other people living under the same roof. But odds are that if grandma's there, she matters, too.

The flexible family unit

A three-generation household is just one type of a living arrangement that falls under the umbrella of what demographers call a "shared household" or a "doubled-up household."

In a shared household, a child lives with at least one adult who isn't a sibling, parent or parent's partner. It could include a cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent or family friend.

In 2010, about 1 in 5 children were living in a shared household, a 3 percentage-point increase from 2007. In a 2014 study, I tracked the same kids over time and found that by age 10, nearly half of children in large U.S. cities had lived in a shared household at some point in their lives.

Then, to probe further, my colleague and I used two large census data sets to study trends by the type of shared living arrangements.

We found that, overall, the percentage of children in shared households had increased since 1996.

But the rise was nearly entirely driven by an increase in just one type of household: three-generation households – sometimes referred to as multigenerational households – in which children live with at least one grandparent and one or both parents.

We also found that the share of children living in three-generation households has risen from 5.7 percent in 1996 to 9.8 percent in 2016.

In other words, roughly 1 in 10, or 7.1 million, kids lives in a multigenerational household. At birth, about 15 percent of U.S. kids now live with a parent and grandparent – a rate that's double that of countries like the U.K. and Australia.

Meanwhile, there was no real change in the percent of children living with aunts and uncles, other relatives or non-relatives. Nor did we find any evidence of an increase in "grandfamilies," also known as "skipped-generation households." These are homes in which a grandparent is raising a grandchild without the child's parents living with them. Counter to some media reports, the share of children living in grandfamilies has held steady at roughly two percent since 1996.

A trend rooted in more than the recession

What propelled the rise in multigenerational households?

We found that shared living arrangements did increase during the recession, but it wasn't just because of the recession. Research on unemployment during the Great Recession has found that the economic downturn didn't have much of an effect on whether parents expanded their household ranks.

In fact, the share of multigenerational households was rising before the Great Recession – it actually started in the 1980s.

Furthermore, these shared living arrangements continued to increase even as the economy recovered.

Credit: Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Demography (2018)

All of this suggests there other, more deeply rooted, reasons for the increase.

My study identified three possible drivers.

Declines in marriage and increases in single parenthood mean more moms and dads are living with their parents, who can help with childcare and paying the bills.

Next, a growing share of U.S. children are non-white. Because minority families are much more likely to share households, this population shift seems to explain some of the increase.

And finally, there's the fact that more people are receiving Social Security. Because Social Security gives grandparents a steady source of income, it could be that these grandparents are stepping in to help their grandchildren if their own children's incomes are too low.

But this only explains some of the increase.

There may well be a range of other factors at play: rising housing costs, growing inequality, increased longevity, or even just an increase in the number of grandparents and step-grandparents.

We also know that low-income parents, younger parents and parents with less education are more likely to live in a three-generation household.

At the same time, some of the fastest growth in these households has been among more traditionally advantaged groups – children with married mothers, higher income mothers and older mothers.

More research is needed to really understand why these households have increased and the extent to which public policies, like reduced welfare availability or declines in the real minimum wage, are driving this trend.

Not an ideal arrangement

While the exact reasons for the trend are still unclear, the fact remains that more kids are living in three-generation households.

What should we make of it?

Studies have found positive, negative and no effects of three-generation households on children.

For example, sharing a household has documented economic benefits, like rental savings. But it can also make households crowded, which isn't the best environment for kids.

The findings are mixed because living arrangements are a complex topic. Motivation is difficult to distill. Sometimes people live together by choice – say, to be closer to family. Other times it's by necessity – prompted by a crisis like a divorce, health problem or job loss.

From a policy perspective, who is in the household will likely impact the effectiveness of programs designed to help and kids. For example, programs that seek to improve the parenting skills of low-income moms generally focus only on moms. They'll teach mothers to use positive parenting skills, like avoiding spanking their kids. But what if grandma still uses corporal punishment?

We also know that, in general, people would prefer to live independently and that it can be challenging to negotiate responsibilities when living with others.

In other words, it's a situation that most families would probably avoid if they could. So the fact that more people are living together suggests other larger societal and policy shifts are driving this trend.

Explore further: More kids living in multigenerational families

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mqr
not rated yet Nov 07, 2018
what is behind is that the economy is set to transfer money to the very rich, so every generation people are poorer and poorer, and the rich are richer and richer.... as someone said "never in history the rich has been this rich, and never the rich felt so poor"
24volts
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2018
The cost of housing is most of it. In the 60's my father was a car mechanic that brought home about $150 a week which was a good paycheck for that job at the time. That allowed him and my mother to buy a home, own a car and an 18' boat we used to use regularly. That paycheck now would barely rent a room in someone's else's house, allow you to ride a moped and eat beans and rice for every meal. They bought a 3 bedroom 2 bath home with a garage and 1/2 acre land in the early 70's for less than 20k and sold it 10 years later. That exact same 50+ year old house was sold for almost $170k a couple of years ago according to the local tax records. The equivalent cars that my father was buying for less than $5k are now about $40-50k. People simply don't have many choices in the matter if they want to live in a decent home and some form of transportation other than live together. Many can't afford anything else.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2018
It is called "a FAMILY", not a "shared " household. Three generations of a family, with sometimes a fourth generation - no matter the reason for their living together - was not unheard of in the 20th century and before. What better place to be with than your own flesh-and-blood relatives who care about you and your future. That is the best place to be in these often troubled times, where even the best of friends cannot have the same unconditional concern for each other as can family members.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2018
what is behind is that the economy is set to transfer money to the very rich, so every generation people are poorer and poorer, and the rich are richer and richer.... as someone said "never in history the rich has been this rich, and never the rich felt so poor"
says mqr

I would not want to be "rich". Being rich comes with too many responsibilities, too many bills and taxes, too many relatives wanting a piece of your pie, and the rich are made to feel guilty for being rich these days.
If they earned their wealth honestly through hard work and are well educated, then I can only give them credit for being resourceful enough to get to where they are. And I have no ill feeling towards them or feel jealous of their wealth. After all, how many meals a day can you eat? How many cars can you drive at one time?
People most often become poor or poorer through their own choices - less educated; less motivation to work; preference to be on welfare (entitlement); laziness, etc.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Nov 07, 2018
We've had our kids (and grandkids) stay with us when their situations weren't favourable. I loved it!
granville583762
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 08, 2018
Same in old blighty, every one is making a quick buck on their house!
24volts> The cost of housing is most of it In 60's my father a car mechanic brought home about $150 a week a good paycheck for that job at the time allowed him my mother to buy a home, own a car and an 18' boat we used to use regularly paycheck now would barely rent a room in someone's else's house, allow you to ride a moped and eat beans and rice for every meal They bought a 3 bedroom 2 bath home with a garage and 1/2 acre land in the early 70's for less than 20k and sold it 10 years later. That exact same 50+ year old house was sold for almost $170k a couple of years ago according to the local tax records. The equivalent cars that my father was buying for less than $5k are now about $40-50k People simply don't have many choices in the matter if they want to live in a decent home and some form of transportation other than live together.

You said it, your house sold for XX $$ then XXX $$$
Da Schneib
not rated yet Nov 08, 2018
Errr, longer lifetimes? Duhh ummm?
JongDan
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2018
Biggest change I see is in the "hispanic" and "other" categories. I had my suspicion that this increase in multi-generational household share might be because of new immigrants bringing in different cultural values (joint family as opposed to nuclear family is traditional in many parts of the world, but not western Europe and by extension US); and this recent increase could be ascribed to the fact that there's now enough Hispanics (and other) with those cultural values, that have lived in US for long enough that their third and up generations are being born.

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