A Pew Research Center study, “The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household,” published long before the most recent, even higher census figures, revealed that in 2008 a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the country’s population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation.
Those figures, according to that Pew report, represented a significant trend reversal that started right after World War II. In 1940, about a quarter of the population lived in a multigenerational home (my mother-in-law, in fact, grew up sharing a house with her aunt, uncle and cousins), while in 1980, only 12 percent did.
One of the issues that occasionally crops up on this weblog is that some readers are surprised that that I would term myself conservative, since that position seems to only imply that one wishes to slow down the inexorable march toward the future. This is a particular view of progressive history, where the future always builds upon and extends the past. Another view is cyclical, or even declinist, and over the course of human history this has been a more common tendency. Instead of hewing toward these heuristics in their extreme and exclusive forms I believe it is more prudent to keep in mind that in our current time both dynamics are important.
For example, my “phone” today would be perceived as science fictional 10 years ago. It would be inconceivable 20 years ago. Though most people don’t utilize the feature, conversations with video are finally within the reach of an average person. But these changes have come so quickly that they’re now the “new normal,” barely worth commentary.
And yet there are social trends which go in cycles. One could argue that there has been a revival of the respectability of bourgeois values in the United States since the 1970s among upper middle class cosmopolitans. Despite the power of hormones it also seems that today’s teens are sexually less experienced, on average, than those of the 1970s or 1980s. The sexual revolution not only plateaued, but receded (the push for gay marriage may actually be part of this, as homosexual activists in the 1970s were often much more radical, and would have dismissed the acquisition of bourgeois institutions into the gay subculture).
These are contemporary examples, but a modest knowledge of history will also refute excessive Whiggishness. Some would argue that the Reformation brought on sexual conservatism, as we would understand such things, only for this ‘reformation of morals’ to recede in the 18th century. In the 19th century you saw the reassertion of sexual conservatism with the Victorians, and a slow recession up to the 1960s, when the dam literally broke. Waves of cultural change and cycles suggest that the lessons of the past are often useful for the future. Social arrangements which may seen outmoded or irrelevant may not always be.
The revival of extended families in contemporary America is clearly due to economics. Unless technology can boost productivity I don’t see this trend reversing in the next 20-30 years. The dependency ratio is such that in the next generation developed societies need to reduce fixed costs like housing, and co-living is the lowest hanging fruit (and, it is within living memory of even many Americans). The piece in The New York Times presents the situation through a rose-tinted lens. And that makes sense, most living arrangements have upsides and downsides, and if the proportion of people living in these extended family situations is increasing, obviously the upsides are more appealing in the current context than the downsides.
But this is also a case where we can look to the past and other societies for lessons in terms of how it will impact our society. Though I have never personally lived in this sort of family, except to some extent between the ages of two and four (and so my memories are minimal), I know of the downsides from family lore and gossip. Just watch a Bollywood film as ethnography. From what I can gather a linear increase in the number of family members within a household does not entail a linear increase in the family drama. On the contrary, there is a very rapid increase, as inter-personal relationships become much more elaborated (this especially is true when you multiply grades of relatedness). A far greater proportion of one’s life is taken up by maintenance of household relationships. The American nuclear family is to some extent on the atomized side, but extended families tend toward hyper-sociality.
And I believe that this has consequences. The shift back toward extended families is due to the exigency of post-bubble America. Bu we may be on the way to a more thoroughgoing shift in the nature of American society, and how we relate to each other. The hyper-mobile nuclear family in the post-World War II America produced a particular kind of culture. What it lacked in family values beyond the core nuclear unit, it made up for in a commitment to civil society which could fill the breach. In contrast, societies which are ‘familialist’ often lack civil institutions and organizations because tight clusters of families can provide what in other societies would be part of the public good.
What I am proposing here is that for most Americans multi-generational living is a means toward maintaining the lifestyle and values which they hold dear, but the shift itself may change that lifestyle and those values in deep and fundamental ways. The initial trigger here is economic, with the first-order causal effects sociological. But the downstream effects may also be economic, as Americans become less mobile and more familialist. What can we expect? Look abroad, and look to the past.