In 2018, Pew Research noted that the multi-generational family structure – defined either as co-habitation among two generations older than 25 years of age or grandparents and grandchildren – was making a comeback. As of 2016, the last year for which data is available, 20% of American families comprised this model and this was the highest level since 1950. When we think of this type of family, we recall the Walton family from the iconic CBS series The Waltons, which aired more than three decades ago. When the series aired, the percentage of American multi-generational families was at or near it’s low point. Since then, it has risen consistently and while there may be other reasons, economic factors play a front-stage center role.
The Pew Research definition is solid because it describes a family composition that is objectively quantifiable via census and sampling data. But what if this is only a partial picture? What if American families are altering their decisions and actions accordingly to account for the decline of the middle class, but in ways that are not as easily captured via standard data collection techniques? What if familial generations are making decisions and arrangements that bind themselves more closely together to provide mutual care without co-habitation? If co-habitation is changing the family structure – the skeleton – are there less overt changes occurring that re-knit the generational sinews in ways that quietly alter American society? Such examples would include:
One generation purposefully relocating closer to another in order to receive or provide support, material or otherwise;
One generation providing childcare or other supportive measures;
One or more generations refusing to relocate because of the impact upon the other generations.
I note these examples because these are actions that I have witnessed both among members of my extended family as well as friends and neighbors over the past several years. What I have come to realize in my adulthood is that while I would like to think that I am special –Thank you, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street – there is actually nothing that special about me. My actions, apart from that ill-considered goat and tequila incident in college, are generally rational and cogent. This likewise applies to most people, who reside in a stable neighborhood along society’s Bell Curve. Expand this observation to the larger population and perhaps there is more going on within the family structure than the definition provided above, material but objectively immeasurable. What do you do if it can’t be objectively measured? Should it just be dismissed out of hand?
In my case, I took the family dog for a walk around the immediate neighborhood.
Since 2017, we have lived on a cul de sac within a golf course community. It’s clearly not representative of larger society and truthfully, we don’t live here for the golf. In early 2017, we needed to retreat to a house that was more amenable to my own physical condition; specifically, one floor living with minimal use of stairs. That the previous owner left behind a fully furnished theater room that allowed my sons to hear the Angels sing was just icing on the cake. Our home is one of 28 units on the cul de sac and every four or six units are clustered together in duplex fashion. Like most Americans, I don’t know every soul in the immediate neighborhood but after two years of conversations and chats, I have a sense of who lives in most of the units and their living arrangements, at least superficially.
I’m really not a creep. I just pay attention.
As the dog and I strolled the neighborhood, I noted what I objectively knew for each of the 28 units.
Units 1 – 3: One vacant and being flipped. Two empty-nesters.
Unit 4: My family, nuclear but providing partial daycare for a grandchild.
Units 5 – 8: A traditional nuclear family. A single parent household with child and roommate, the unit purchased by the grandparents of the adult daughter, and a unit serving as a vacation getaway for an elderly couple from another state.
Units 9 – 13: Empty-nesters and elderly couples.
Units 14 – 15: True multi-generational household with two adult generations and a grandchild (and a really cool Labrador). Nuclear family with adults likewise providing daycare for grandchildren.
Unit 16: Single parent with teenagers who returned to be closer to family.
Units 17 – 22: Empty nest or unknown.
Unit 23: True multi-generational household with two adult generations and grandchildren.
Units 24 – 28: Empty nest or unknown.
So of 28 units, two meet the multi-generational definition and an additional four – including my own – have some significant interaction in which one or more generations provide material assistance to another. This isn’t the least bit objective or statistically relevant but what makes this particular cul de sac in some way not indicative of larger trends within society?
The upshot? It is possible, although not objectively quantifiable, that the multi-generational interactions are being understated. The winnowing of the middle class and the opioid epidemic are fostering a greater interdependence among the generations than has been seen in decades. Newer linkages are likely being formed because circumstances require them and unless or until someone can ascertain a means to measure this extent, these material interactions will be understated because they exist beneath the data gathering radar.
So perhaps the definition noted above is incomplete. Perhaps it should be expanded from physical co-habitation to this:
One adult generation relocating to closer proximity to another, or refusing to relocate away from another, in order to give or receive increased physical or financial support;
Providing or receiving some form of physical or financial support (childcare, eldercare) between the adult generations.
There has always been some degree of supportive interaction between the generations throughout our history. In my own family, my father and his parents were forced to move in with his grandmother during the Great Depression. My maternal grandmother lived within two blocks of my aunt and that aunt routinely checked on her as she aged. My own parents spent more than two decades supplementing my paternal grandmother’s income with a monthly stipend of $100 with which she managed to accrue a stunning quantity of makeup and costume jewelry. But these common instances are overtaken because of the economic stresses upon the family from the middle class’ decline.
We teach and raise small children with the idea that they are each, in some way, special. But we realize in our adulthood that we aren’t as special and are more alike to others. We, as adults, make accommodations to the circumstances and physical surroundings that might be novel because they are new to us, but which aren’t as novel as they might appear because others are having to make them as well.
The next time that you take the dog for a neighborhood stroll, consider what you know and think whether there’s anything that can be extrapolated. But I wouldn’t necessarily share it with many of the neighbors because they’re liable to think that you’re creepy.
The Great Reversion, which kicked into overdrive with the Financial Crisis of 2007, has now run headfirst into the social institution that the Conservative movement exalts: the American Family. Change is constant although most is ebb and flow. But now, multiple separate data-points about the American family support the concept that its structure is changing in response to its long-term financial circumstances.
Let’s be clear. There is no longer a true monolithic model for the contemporary American family and no one can lay claim to it, despite what the Religious Right likes to think. But the separate data-points indicate that the great mass of families – religious or not – is looking at their respective long-term circumstances and making rational family-unit level decisions to best situate themselves for what they perceive to be their future. We all know the mass of economic data-points showing what’s amiss:
These kinds of circumstances have an impact however, and that impact is now reflected in the long-term decisions of the family adults. How so?
First, America’s Total Fertility Rate – known informally as our replacement fertility rate – declined in 2018 to 1.73, the lowest point since the Oil Crisis/Inflation period of the mid 1970s. That was a bleak period two generations ago and I recall a conversation with a gentleman who commented that he and his wife were nervous about bringing new life into a world that was, in the moment, intimidating. Circumstances improved however: The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union collapsed; even with 9/11, we entered a period in which homes were larger than ever and housing prices would only ever go up. Money was cheap and anybody who could fog a mirror was able to borrow large amounts for increasingly unpopular McMansions. And with that increase went the Total Fertility Rate.
Until approximately 2007 however, when the wheels came off. Since then, the TFR has dropped and it’s low point is confirmed by a second fertility statistic, the General Fertility Rate, which measures the rate at which women are currently having children.
The typical family is looking at it’s prospect and saying Nah Bruh, I think that I’m good for now… And this is playing out in the second data-point.
Next, more younger couples are only having one child. This is now the fastest growing cohort of families and has doubled in the four decades from 1976 to 2015, from 11% to 22% and if the article is correct, then it’s not going to slow appreciably in the near future. It hasn’t necessarily been a financial decision since part of the interplay is the aspect of delayed motherhood from a greater participation in the workforce and the opening of previously closed career pathways for women. But my suspicion, gut at best, is that people are looking at the cost, excluding higher education, and holding put at one child.
Third, the American family itself is quietly morphing from its historic nuclear family structure to a multi-generational model. What we consider the traditional nuclear has been rooted for generations in the two-generation unit, parents and biological children together. It has shifted itself as the racial, cultural and gender lines have blurred so that a modern nuclear family can be parents of two separate races or the same sex, and the children can be adopted instead of related via birth. Studies have shown that this particular unit structure can be found in records back as far as the 13th century in England but the sociologists’ research of the 20th century has linked the economic development since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, as well as our own domestic economic growth, to the widespread availability of the nuclear family; it was this foundational unit that was able to move to where the opportunities for economic advancement were then available.
One particular economic issue today pertains to this very concept of labor mobility. Economists have noted in the past several years that the percentage of Americans willing to move for employment has dropped by half, from the 1980s to today, from 20% to about 10%. It’s notable that from 2012 to 2017, this number declined from one in eight Americans in 2012 to one in ten in 2017. Labor mobility matters because it allows for the best match of labor demand and supply so that productivity is maximized at the greatest benefit to labor. Consider Detroit’s auto industry in the early to mid 20th century. American automakers were able to turn out autos at such a rate because they were able to obtain a healthy supply of labor, much of it from the Black communities of the American South. For all of the social issues that were engendered, the pay for black workers in Detroit was still higher than what they were able to earn in the Jim Crow South and significant numbers of Blacks moved northwards to take advantage of it. But when labor mobility declines, as it has, then there is a mismatch between the demand and supply of labor and each aspect suffers. Middle had a college classmate who graduated with a degree in video sound editing and his goal was to move to Silicon Valley; but with the cost of housing so wildly out of reach for the average person, this youngster would have joined others living in vehicles as they worked in their chosen field. The result? He stayed on the east coast.
When you note the rise in the percentage of multi-generation families since 1970, also consider the arrival of the immigrant family; both Asian and Hispanic families tend to have more than two generations under the same roof, often because of financial reasons. Despite this, the percentage of multi-generational families has risen across all racial demographics.
But these factors account for what has happened thus far and don’t necessarily reflect the impact of what will come; expect the multi-generational model to make far greater inroads as we move ahead. Simply put, there are going to be far more elderly Americans with far less savings to support themselves through their remaining years and the existing social infrastructure for their care is seriously insufficient.
The first thing to understand is that there is no longer a single demographic cohort for the elderly and these cohorts aren’t growing at the same rate; there are seniors, the elderly and the Old AF. The demographic models are such that the number of elderly Americans, 65 and above, will outnumber young Americans by 2035. However, the number of those between 75 and 84 will increase by 100% while those above 85 will increase by 200% by 2050. The raw number of the elderly population is going to outpace the number of workers available to support them via government financed social programs.
The paucity of savings is further complicated by the global experiment with artificially low interest rates. Our national monetary policy for longer than a decade has been to push interest rates to the lower ranges to both encourage consumption – I have to hold back a laugh when I consider the prevailing credit card rates – and assist in managing the interest costs of our national debt. This is good for the federal government and companies, who have persistently taken on large amounts of debt for the purpose of buying back their stock. But it is horrendous for middle-aged and elderly savers who, at one time, depended upon the interest income from their lifetime of accumulated savings to fund their nest egg. As rates have been consistently low for more than a decade, those in or approaching their senior years have been forced to shift their investment focus to riskier investments in the hope of obtaining a higher return. This is a sea-change from the traditional approach of shifting to safer and more stable portfolios as retirement is reached. If you are 56 and have $172000 in savings, you are going to run a greater risk of losing it before you hit your final years.
The last factor is that the infrastructure for elder care is simply inadequate for the numbers of older Americans coming down the pike. Elderly Americans are covered for many, if not all, medical expenses via the Medicare program; most importantly for very elderly Americans, this can include some, but not all, aspects of nursing home residency. Corollary expense, such as hands-on care for assistance in Activities of Daily Living (ADL) is not covered and is left to the individual or family to pay. In addition, there is a cap for the per diem fee that Medicare will pay nursing homes for Medicare patients so there is limited profitability for nursing homes in the Medicare program. The upshot? There might be a specific number of nursing beds available in a locality but there is only a subset of those that are available to elderly citizens whose primary coverage is via Medicare simply because of insufficient revenue; this isn’t referring to the rates of return on the business but actually even maintaining any profitability at all.
The other aspect to the infrastructure question is simply one of labor. The dispersion of the American elderly demographic isn’t uniform and some areas are more hard hit than others. Maine is now what the World Bank classifies as a super-aged entity, noted by a fifth of the population being older than 65 years of age; this is the first state to reach this milestone and by 2030 – 11 years from now – more than half of the states in the country will cross that threshold. If there are an insufficient number of nursing home beds available for the most infirm, then the next best step is to do everything possible to keep them in their own homes. It is less expensive and theoretically possible to make this work – except that there are vicinities in which there isn’t enough available trained labor to support that goal of in-home services. Maine is the first state to face the situation and service providers are simply declining to take on new clients because they just do not have the people to provide the services; the families who are in the area are then forced into situations, often intense, for which they have no minimal resources and training.
Let’s connect the dots.
The elder generations will grow significantly and disproportionately, relative to younger generations.
These generations lack the assets to support the care that is likely to be required in their much later years as debility and deteriorating medical conditions require greater spending.
The infrastructure, both physical and labor, for elder care is insufficient at present in many locations for this growth.
The present political conservative political sentiment will preclude significantly increased spending on elder care programs and much of the burden will continue to be shifted back to the family unit as has already happened with retirement, cost of higher education and health care costs. Even if there is a massive shift towards greater social spending, the conversation among the Democratic candidates relates to healthcare and higher education benefits with little mention of Eldercare.
There are simply too many soon-to-be elders and they don’t have the money. Any correction of the hollowing out of the American Middle Class will likely take decades which means that even the younger generations aren’t going to have the resources and they in turn will have to rely in some measure on their own adult children when they reach their own elder years. This is the upshot of living through the Great Reversion since our forebears often had to stand for some measure of responsibility for their own parents and grandparents and this is how it’s going to be moving forward.
Raising children can be difficult and teens even more so. But our grandparents could get through those years with a sigh of relief at the lifting of responsibility because their own parents had the assets to largely support themselves in their dotage. Many of us are only going to have a few years of respite before we are forced to re-assume that responsibility for our own elders as they navigate their final years.
Understand that your own children are watching you and you’ll want to set a decent example for them when they are, in turn, responsible for you.