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We’re all moving in together

The pandemic has pushed more multigenerational families back under one roof.

By Jenni Gritters

Each morning, Jennifer Raff’s sister takes the family’s two dogs out for a run at the dog park. Raff gets up early and goes straight to work while her mother wakes up her young son, Oliver, and gets him dressed and fed. Most often, Raff’s mother takes Oliver to day care; Raff, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, spends her day teaching online courses, then leaves work at 4 p.m. to pick Oliver up. When they get home, her sister makes dinner, Raff exercises, and her husband feeds their son and helps him get ready for bed. Then the adults eat together before relaxing.

When Raff and her husband, who is also a professor, bought their four-bedroom home in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2016, they imagined that one of their parents might move in with them eventually. But that time came a lot sooner than expected. In 2019, Raff’s mom moved in. She’d lost her job and didn’t have much savings, and said she wanted to help Raff and her husband take care of Oliver. Then Raff’s younger sister lost her university teaching job due to the COVID-19 pandemic and she moved in, too. Now their home is crowded: Four adults, one child, and two dogs under one roof.

But living with family has made it significantly easier for Raff and her husband to juggle work pressures and child care during the pandemic. She says she has actually been enjoying the setup more than she expected.

“I love having family around,” she says. “The downside is that you don’t have as much alone time … But we’re a team, and we work together to figure out what needs to get done.”

Many families, like Raff’s, are deciding to bunk up together: New reports from the Pew Research Center show that about one-fifth of U.S. adults have either moved due to the pandemic or know someone who has, and that 52% of young adults ages 18 to 29 are now living with their parents — an increase from the 47% recorded in February 2020.

Of course, many multigenerational families lived together before COVID-19 hit. In fact, for much of U.S. history, living with several generations of family was the norm; single-family homes are a fairly recent phenomenon. According to a Pew report, extended-family homes fell out of favor after World War II, and by 1980, only 12% of Americans lived in that kind of setup. But by 2008, that number was back up to 16% and growing, likely due to young adults getting married later and a tough economy that made it difficult to find jobs or launch careers.

A decade later, the number of multigenerational homes had ticked up further; a 2018 Pew study found that 64 million Americans, or 20% of the country, lived in homes containing at least three generations. For some, according to a survey by Generations United — a national membership organization that advocates for building bridges between generations — the impetus to combine forces stems from economic stressors or caretaking needs. It’s no wonder, then, that the multidimensional crises caused by COVID-19 would push more families under one roof.

“Moving in together may be an attempt for some to regain a sense of community in a society that can sometimes feel disconnected.”

2020 Real Trends report on multigenerational living

Most of the people surveyed in the Generations United study said they found the experience of multigenerational or collaborative living to be largely beneficial. This was especially true for seniors. In a society that often isolates elderly people, the opportunity to care for one’s grandchildren, or for other young members of one’s community, can help to reduce loneliness and add a sense of purpose. Older adults who are retired often have plenty of time to focus on young children. That reduces the pressure on parents who are struggling during COVID-19 to manage remote work, home schooling, and taking care of themselves.

Allyson Wilson, a Washington, D.C., resident and mom of three, says her high-stress, demanding job as the director of digital strategy and content marketing for the American Chemistry Council made the pandemic that much harder. Last March her company went fully remote, and she started to work at home with her 7-year-old daughter and 13- and 15-year-old sons.

“From March to the end of May was hell on earth,” she says. “I’d be on calls, and all of a sudden my daughter would be yelling, and I’d have to get up, even with a vice president on Zoom.”

Wilson’s husband works outside of the home, so Wilson found herself in charge of running their household while struggling with anxiety. After a few months, she reached out to her parents, who had recently moved to Virginia Beach.

Since August, Wilson and her two youngest children have lived in Virginia Beach with their parents, while her husband and older son have stayed in Washington, D.C. Her younger son, a nationally ranked competitive swimmer, has gotten more pool time there, and her parents have helped home-school her daughter. Even though she misses her husband and eldest son, Wilson says she’s found the situation to be surprisingly positive.

According to a 2020 report from Real Trends, which tracks real estate and home buying trends, over 40% of Americans now buy a house with multigenerational living in mind. The report cites a sense of isolation as a major reason. “Moving in together may be an attempt for some to regain a sense of community in a society that can sometimes feel disconnected,” the authors write, also noting that multigenerational living is a cultural norm in many Hispanic and Asian American households.

Kristen Jeffers, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Urbanist, predicts that real estate developers and builders will start to capitalize on this move toward multigenerational living too, especially once COVID-19 passes.

“[They’ll need to think] seriously about making larger apartments, row or townhomes, and even duplexes and large single-family homes on smaller, transit-connected lots — say, with three to five bedrooms,” she says. Jeffers predicts that a turn toward community and family support will also impact other parts of our urban structure, from building codes to mortgage agreements.

Real Trends predicts an increased interest in homes with in-law suites and soundproofing, which allow modern families to live together while maintaining privacy. The report also anticipates that future homes might be designed with smaller bedrooms and larger common areas, and with plenty of storage space.

Wilson and Raff both say they didn’t seriously consider living with extended family long-term until COVID-19 presented a need. Now, for both of them, there’s no going back. In fact, Wilson has enjoyed her time with her parents so much, she’s talking with her husband about setting up a permanent area for them in her D.C. home.

“My parents have enjoyed it too,” Wilson says. “They get to spend more time with their grandkids, my mom and I switch off who cooks, and we have this neat little multigenerational living set up.”

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle. She’s been published in The New York Times, Slate, and Outside magazine.


Illustration by Emma Roulette


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