Bye-Bye, Empty Nests: Multigenerational Living Is on the Rise

According to the economy may have largely recovered from the depths of the downturn, but there’s a record number of grown children living with their folks. And with soaring housing prices, aging parents, and the changing ethnic makeup of the nation, the trend of multigenerational living looks like it’s just getting started.

About 19% of all Americans, roughly 60.6 million people, lived in multigenerational homes in 2014, in households typically made up of parents, their adult children, and often their grandkids, according to a recent Pew Research Center report that looked at U.S. Census data. That’s practically a throwback to the 1950s, when about 21% of Americans shared a roof with their grown children or parents. Déjà vu, anyone?

As nuclear families became the norm, that percentage dropped to just 12% in 1980. But then the economy tanked in the mid-2000s. And as times became tough, the number of adult children living with their parents started rising again—hitting 17% in 2009 and 18% in 2012, according to the report.

The report defined adult children as age 25 and up, so college students home on breaks aren’t counted, and looked at households with at least two generations.

“We had a 50-year experiment with the nuclear family,” says John Graham, co-author of “Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living.” Now “we’re getting back to the way human beings have always lived—in extended families.”

The uptick is partly due to the nation’s growing numbers of ethnic minorities, who are more likely to live in multigenerational homes. About 28% of Asians and about 25% of both Hispanics and blacks shacked up with their extended families in 2014, according to the report. That’s compared with just 15% of whites.

Another interesting finding is that women, at 20%, are slightly more likely than men, at 18%, to live in these arrangements.

“As the face of America is changing, so are family structures,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, DC–based advocacy group for intergenerational programs and housing. “It shouldn’t be a taboo or looked down upon if grown children are living with their families or older adults are living with their grown children.

“The majority of families say there can be some difficulties, but overall it helps them economically, it helps them with caregiving, and it helps them develop stronger ties between family members,” she adds.

Many of real estate agent Karen K.H. Park‘s predominantly Asian clients look for multigenerational homes in the Fort Lee, NJ, area where she works. Most are grown children with their own kids, who are seeking separate spaces in their new homes for their parents—whether anticipating long-term visits or permanent stays.

“The husband and wife need someone to help raise their children,” particularly if they’re both working, Park says. “They help each other.”

The shift can also be attributed to basic economics, says Carmen Multhauf, co-author of the book “Generational Housing: Myth or Mastery for Real Estate.” Rents and home prices have been skyrocketing in recent years, hitting new heights in some cities.

“The younger generations have not been able to save,” she says of the younger generation often struggling to get good-paying jobs. “Having student debt is keeping them from having enough money to fund a down payment.”
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Builders are taking note.

About 25% to 30% of Partners in Building’s business is now multigenerational houses, says CEO Jim Lemming. Ten years ago, he estimates it made up just 15% of the Houston, TX–based custom builder’s clientele.

More and more of the company’s buyers are hailing from parts of the world where multigenerational homes are the norm—and they carry that expectation to the U.S., Lemming says.

Most of the housing his company builds for these clients is a suite on the first floor, sometimes with a separate entrance and a kitchenette. Clients also often ask for a more detached suite with a separate walkway connecting it to the main house.

And while the bulk of his customers are requesting this housing for their aging parents, he’s seeing more and more adult children return to the nest.