How Communal, Multigenerational Living Is Part of the Answer to America’s Housing and Health Crises
"'Multigenerational living arrangements might improve financial resources, buffer stress, reduce loneliness, enhance intellectual sharing, and generate structural social capital, thereby elevating the level of one’s health.'" - Michelle Singletary, "Who’s living under your roof? Why a multigenerational household can strengthen your family finances and bonds." The Washington Post
At Living Deep, we are committed to celebrating each person's individual character while also supporting the greater community -- and caring for the planet. Rugged individualism has long represented American identity-- particularly after President Herbert Hoover’s treatise on the subject. It has also long fed the once popular belief in American exceptionalism. By a certain age, Americans must strike out on their own. They are expected to leave their childhood homes and families behind in pursuit of a life all to one’s self. However, a number of changes to the American way of life have made the rugged individualism of decades past nearly impossible. Wage stagnation and unparalleled debt -- including medical, credit card and student -- have suppressed current working generations -- e.g. Gen X’ers, Millennials and Gen Z’ers -- from achieving the “American dream.”
Sometimes this dream means a comfortable retirement at an appropriate age. Other times it means purchasing a home to start a family. Regardless, it seems most definitions no longer apply. Rising housing costs in urban areas -- excusing the brief blips which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic -- have forced families into smaller spaces and full-time working adults into leases with an unusual number of roommates. Slowly, Americans have -- however reluctantly -- shifted their definition of “home” -- particularly as fewer and fewer are able to purchase their own as a single individual or a couple. They have also shifted their definition of and their prioritizing of individualism -- especially as rugged individualism continues to harm our health and fiscal security. Today, we are more aware of the importance and impact of community and family -- especially in light of the isolation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, many would have us believe that individualism -- not community-mindedness -- is the solution to all our problems. Sarah Moore explains in an article for Healthy Places by Design that “in general, messages that frame social challenges as issues of individual choice do not advance public support for policy, systems or environmental solutions.” This begs the question: can Americans redefine or let go of individualism to adapt to an era of communal living and improved overall health? And if so, how will communal, multigenerational living function as an answer to America’s housing and health crises? Follow below as we examine how this shift might benefit all generations of American residents -- and how it might make American culture more compassionate.
Recent Changes in US Household Composition
"One in five Americans currently lives in a multigenerational household." - "Multigenerational Households," Generations United
In a 2013 article for Builder, writer Charlotte O'Malley reported stats from the 2011 Community Preference Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors. O’Malley noted that -- at the time of her article -- “detached, single-family homes [were] the end goal for the majority of Americans.” O’Malley found that “while 80 percent of the population would prefer to live in a single-family home," only 70% did. In 2020, it appears the majority of Americans would still prefer to live in single-family homes. However, many have adapted the composition of these households in order to afford them. This has meant renting out rooms in one’s own home -- either to strangers or to friends or family -- or joining forces -- and finances -- with one’s parents.
The number of multigenerational households has experienced quite the incline over the past four decades. In 1980, it hit a record low of only 12% of all households, but had risen to 20% of households by 2016. The sharpest incline in percentage of Americans living in multigenerational households occurred between 2009 and 2016. The appearance of multigenerational households has also changed during this time. In the past -- according to the Pew Research Center -- adults over 85 years were most likely to live in multigenerational households. These adults typically represented the grandparents or parents of the homeowners. However, today, young adults have become “the age group most likely to live in multigenerational households.” As of 2016, 33% of multigenerational household residents were between the ages of 25 and 29 years of age. According to the Pew study, “the most common type of multigenerational household...consists of two adult generations, such as parents and their adult children.” The children in this equation are typically Millennials -- as referenced above -- the generation that has purportedly led the shift towards multigenerational housing.
Why Are Multigenerational Households Increasing?
According to the Pew Research Center study, the number of multigenerational households increases "despite improvements in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession.” Many expected the share of single family households to increase as the economy and spending power improved. However, the share of multifamily housing has only increased since the end of the Recession. It grew a record 10% between the start of the Recession and 2016. The Generations United article “Multigenerational Households” outlines five major contributing factors to this trend. According to the network, these include delayed marriage, increased immigration, “availability of kin,” health issues and “economic conditions.”
Marrying Later or Never
"In 2010, the median age for first marriage was 25.8 for women and 28.3 for men — a steady rise since 1960, when the median age for both men and women was in the early 20s." - "The changing face — and age — of marriage," American Psychological Association
The article explains that Americans are marrying later in life, leaving those in their twenties and thirties at home with parents for longer. The age at which Americans are marrying has increased while the number of Americans marrying at all has decreased. A newsletter article from the American Psychological Association -- entitled “The changing face — and age — of marriage” -- outlines these shifts. According to the article, “in 1995, 59 percent of women were married by age 25." Conversely, between 2006 and 2010, "only 44 percent in that age group had ever said ‘I do.’” Furthermore, in “2010, the median age for first marriage was 25.8 for women and 28.3 for men." This increase in age represents "a steady rise since 1960, when the median age for both men and women was in the early 20s.” This change may be due to a combination of factors. These may include a lessening number of Americans having children at any point in life. They may also include the economic difficulties posed by leaving one’s parents and marrying another financially insecure single adult.
Increasing Immigration and Family Availability
"There are more Baby Boomers currently financially secure and able to offer their parents a place to live in their old age while providing a home to their own children." - "Multigenerational Households," Generations United
Another contributing factor to the increase in multigenerational housing has been a simultaneous increase in immigration. Specifically, an increase in immigration from Asian and Latin American countries to the United States has affected household composition. While not the rule, many cultures from these regions place greater importance on caring for the elderly than do many Americans. According to the Pew study referenced above, “the Asian and Hispanic populations... are more likely than whites to live in multigenerational family households.” However, all demographics of multigenerational households are currently growing. Another reason outside immigration for which multigenerational households are increasing is the financial security of the Baby Boomer generation. This security is stark compared to the harsh insecurity of younger generations. The Generations United article explains that today, “more Baby Boomers are currently financially secure." These Baby Boomers are both "able to offer their parents a place to live" and to provide "a home to their own children.” Sadly, Millennials, Gen Z’ers and even some Gen X’ers are unable to afford solo living. As such, Baby Boomers -- who came of age in a more profitable generation with lower costs of living -- have offered support.
Growing Economic, Mental and Physical Health Issues
"Generally incurable and ongoing, chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of this country." - "About Chronic Diseases," National Health Council
Lastly, multigenerational housing may be increasing due to lack of economic, physical and mental health across generations. As the Generations United article explains, “increasing numbers of Americans of all ages suffer from chronic conditions and disabilities.” In fact, a shocking number of American adults live with either a chronic physical illness, a life-impeding disability or a mental health issue. According to the NAMI brief “Mental Health Facts in America,” “1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness [with] nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America liv[ing] with a serious mental illness.” Furthermore -- according to the CDC -- “61 million adults in the United States live with a disability,” representing one in four adults. Of these, 13.7% of people in the US have a serious mobility disability and 10.8% have a serious cognitive disability. Further still -- according to a 2014 report released by the NHC -- “chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans." This represents "more than 40% of the total population of this country.”
The NHC estimates that by the end of this year, “157 million” Americans will suffer from chronic diseases, “with 81 million having multiple conditions.” Rising costs of healthcare -- including in-home care -- and an increasing number of Americans suffering from chronic issues have encouraged -- nay, forced -- multigenerational families to live together. This speaks to the issue of economic health just as much as it does to that of human health. An April 2020 brief released by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation revealed that “healthcare costs have increased over the past few decades." They have risen "from 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1960 to 18 percent in 2018.” Between 2018 and 2028, costs per person are expected to increase by 61%. They are expected to rise from $11,000 per person annually to $18,000 annually. The brief notes that these estimates do not take the COVID-19 pandemic and its lasting health effects into consideration. As expected, other economic health issues also contribute to the increase in multigenerational housing. These include wage stagnation, unparalleled student debt, unrivaled credit card debt and increasing cost of rent across the US.
Benefits of Multigenerational Living
"'Even though there can be occasional challenges, there are so many wonderful social and emotional benefits that come from close family connections. Multigenerational living situations can enhance life satisfaction, well-being and purpose for all.'" - Caroline Atterton, LCSW at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, "Managing a multigenerational home," Sharp Health News
In a recent article for USA Today, Aimee Picchi outlines the many benefits of multigenerational housing that have risen from an action of necessity. Many might assume that living in a multigenerational household could prevent residents from realizing career and family goals. However -- according to Picchi -- the opposite might be more true. Picchi writes that “while some adults move home to save money...others are drawn by benefits that reach far beyond the financial.” In her article “The future of housing looks nothing like today’s” for Fast Company, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan elaborates on Picchi’s point. Campbell-Dollaghan echoes the data referenced above. She notes that “as many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child.” Some might imagine multigenerational living puts the kibosh on privacy and independence. Of course, it certainly can. However, multigenerational living removes some of the harmful burden of expected life-long “physical and financial independence.”
It offers more stability as well as safe harbor from social isolation, which can be supremely harmful to both physical and mental health. Campbell-Dollaghan writes -- quoting architect Katie McCamant -- that this focus on independence has actually caused Americans to “design community right out of our lives.” A renewed interest -- whether forced or chosen -- in multigenerational living takes this pressure off American adults without making it “their fault.” Multigenerational housing fosters “tighter relationships” between those generations, fostering understanding, compassion and empathy in a way that is much-needed in our current political climate. Co-housing allows for lesser financial burden across many areas -- from medical costs to mortgage payments. In addition to financial benefits, it may also support the mental, physical and emotional health of those involved.
"Multigenerational family living presents unheralded opportunities to save energy, water, building materials and land.” - Natascha Klocker, et al., “The environmental implications of multigenerational living: Are larger households also greener households?" University of Wollongong
In addition to these very real human health benefits, co-housing might also improve the health of the planet. Campbell-Dollaghan writes that “infilling around existing suburbs...can ‘reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.’” A study out of the University of Wollongong in Australia supports Cambpell-Dollaghan’s claim. The 2017 paper notes that “on a per capita basis, household size is inversely related to resource consumption and waste production.” In fact, in adding to a household, “multigenerational family living presents unheralded opportunities to save energy, water, building materials and land.” The U of Wollongong faculty writers explain that these benefits arise from “inadvertent sustainability.” They define the term as “practices not conceived with sustainability in mind, but which are environmentally beneficial.” Natascha Klocker, et al. write that multigenerational households are “economies of scale,” producing more waste overall but less per person on average. The paper explains that “households with more members typically consume fewer resources." They also "generate less waste” in the end because resources are shared rather than consumed -- or tossed out -- individualistically.
At Living Deep, we are always on the look-out for ways in which to improve the health of our homes and our planet. In short, a continued increase in multigenerational housing and a turn away from individualistic living has enormous potential. The benefits include lessening the nationwide housing crisis and increasing individual and shared wealth through property ownership and reduction of debt. It might also include a decrease in mental and physical health impacts and a reduction of our overall carbon footprint. An increase in co-housing might shave off a degree or two of our prized -- yet flawed -- rugged individualism. However, just a single benefit of those outlined above could be well worth it. All combined, the benefits to society far outweigh the costs.