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.