Most people assume that the nuclear family is the natural and best environment for bringing up children. We probably also assume that it’s been the norm forever. But both assumptions are wrong. Both historically and cross-culturally the extended family – multiple generations living together and sharing responsibilities – is in fact the most common social arrangement. Remember the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child”?

The nuclear family only became widespread after the Industrial Revolution created a factory based, centralized economy. This type of economy favored the smaller, nuclear family unit because it could more easily pick up and move to wherever the work was. In the scenario that gave birth to the nuclear family, husbands’ incomes alone could support the whole family. For the first time in history, wives were able to stay home and run the household and care for the children full time, on their own.

The problem with this family structure today is that one income can no longer support most households and most wives also have to work outside of the home. However, children and aging parents still have to be cared for and this creates a vicious circle. Parents have to pay a big chunk of their income to caregivers for their children (nannies or au pairs, daycare centers, etc.) and must also often help their parents afford retirement communities, home health care, or nursing homes. Then the people caring for YOUR children and parents have to pay people to take care of THEIR children and parents, and so on.

In 1940, 25% of Americans lived in multi-generational homes, with grandparents helping to care for young children and later older kids helping to care for the aging grandparents. By 1980, only 12% of Americans lived in inter-generational homes. But after the Great Recession of 2008, economic necessity brought that number back to 18%.

The current Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fact that our society today farms out and isolates our older population and puts unrealistic pressures on the nuclear family unit. Maybe now is a good time for another resurgence of the interdependence of the generations.

We have idealized ‘independence’ for a long time; the independence of the parent-child unit despite huge logistical and economic hurdles and the independence of the older generation who are proud to be able to make it on their own, despite loneliness, isolation, and often a huge price tag. It seems clearer now how dysfunctional the separation of the generations can be for a vast number of families.

Multi-generational living

With good childcare hard to find and prohibitively expensive, it’s a no brainer that willing and able grandparents could be invaluable to cut costs and increase the quality of their grandchildren’s care, at least part-time, while their children work. This may not always be feasible. I would not have let my in-laws spend that much time with my kids unless they promised to pay all the psychiatric bills that that would have engendered. And my mother was too busy living her own life to even occasionally babysit for my kids (she ‘visited’ with them at her convenience).

On the other hand, I have a friend whose daughter has three kids ages six, four, and two-and-a-half. She normally helps her daughter out a few days a week, but since the shelter in place order in Connecticut, my friend and her husband have been spending all day, every day helping their totally overwhelmed, home-bound daughter. Another friend moved down the street from their daughter so they could help out regularly with her special needs daughter. My husband and I were lucky enough to have had grandparents as a big part of our lives growing up and in turn, we helped care for them when they got older. It was a win, win for everyone involved, and enriched all of our lives.

It might take a while to trend back to extended families living together, or at least close by, on a larger scale. First, attitudes have to change back to valuing the extended family lifestyle. That may begin to happen seeing how both young families and seniors are struggling with financial and emotional stress today. Inter-generational families may be seen as a solution to today’s problems for future generations. Instead of the ‘sandwich generation’, balancing children and aging parents separately but at the same time, the extended family brings everyone together to help each other through all stages of life.

In the meantime, the government can ease the situation for younger parents by guaranteeing paid parental leave and also access to high-quality child care for everyone. That still leaves older people alone with their children helping with their care as best they can. But at least it could give young families a breather while we all figure out what type of family structure works best for everyone in today’s world.

Categories: Ellin Curley, Family

Tags: , , ,

11 replies

  1. Signs of the times! A great take on the subject, Ellen. I definitely think you’re on to something.


  2. Chatting with my sister the other evening, I asked how her grandchildren are doing. Having moved back from Italy a few years ago so they could know her as a real person, and living about 3 miles from the kids, she commented that they are fine, but with the shut-down, “Grandmothers are not desirable any more,” meaning that she can’t come and go as she was accustomed to doing.


  3. Family living together have its own benefits and in between many have difficult times too, to make things compatible… living together requires love and not being biased in nature…
    A family can well managed and can live humbly when the role of every individual is involved with joint efforts of being together.


    • Nobody thinks that it’s easy to live in a multigenerational family. More people of any age make the dynamics more difficult and there’s more potential for friction between family members. But in some situations, it makes life easier for everyone involved.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You bring up some of the issues with our family structure today. Besides the nuclear family unit, there is also the expectation by the parents and the desire by the kids that the younger generation will move out and be on their own at an arbitrarily-set age – or after they finish college. Lots of young people are not going away to college anymore, which used to be sort of the norm in the U.S., or even to college at all. Employment opportunities, with or without a college degree, are not always what both generations expect them to be. Until this pandemic hit and the economy tanked, Trump bragged about what a great economy we had – the economy was booming!! No, the stock market was booming, but the economy? Not so much if you paid attention to how many people had part-time jobs (so they don’t come up in the unemployed labor statistics) or low paying, dead end jobs, with no benefits. And they are expected to pay for health insurance on the marketplace working at Wal-mart or driving for Uber? No way! I think the service economy, which is where most of the low-paying and part-time jobs are, has changed the economic outlook of young families. We used to believe we’d be better off than our parents, and our kids better off than we were. Not true!! My parents were much more well-off than any of their offspring and our kids – well, some have succeeded quite well, while others have struggled and continue to struggle. We do have to retool how we think of “family” and go back to the “simpler”, more old-fashioned times, with multi generational living. This is but one aspect of our economy – or society – that must change, because what we had before coronavirus was rapidly becoming unsustainable. Everything is connected: family, economy, inequality, immigration, climate change, etc. Maybe we will emerge from these stay-at-home days with some different ways of thinking. Because going back to “normal” just isn’t going to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • it has been a steady downhill drift from my parents to my granddaughter. Salaries of not grown and opportunities have not increased. Whole industries have been moved to other countries. It has been a crappy job market for years so unless you own a big piece of the market (or did, anyway), it was NOT a great economy except for the billionaires.


    • very good points about the state of the economy and how it effects people’s lives. The economy is another major reason that multigenerational families may come back in style again because everyone will have to pool resources in order to survive financially. Hopefully this quarantine period has opened people’s eyes to the realities of the work world and how marginal many people are financially. Something has to change and soon.


  5. I agree with you. Family living together has lots of benefits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was primarily talking about the social and emotional benefits of multigenerational living, but there are economic reasons as well. Today, for financial reasons, you have to have multiple family members earning income to support the family but you also need multiple members doing the child care and house chores to keep the family going. two people can’t do it all anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you. The fact that so many older people died in special care facilities because corona virus just broke my heart. They were all vulnerable and one infected person caused all of them to fall sick. If they were living with their families, things might have been different.


      • I have noticed. I used to be able to do an all room cleaning in a couple of hours. Now it takes me a couple of weeks, bit by bit. I’m too tired to do the push to get it all done.


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