Financial challenges play a role in uniting extended families under one roof.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
PITTSBURGH -- Households brimming with three generations call up images of an era when the more hands a family had, the better its chance of survival.
But for Jessica Lawrence, a separated mother of two, it's just as imperative now. Childcare costs, monthly rent for her Pittsburgh apartment and electric bills were swallowing her pay from a retail job.
"I put it off to the point where I couldn't keep going anymore," Lawrence said. So she moved her kids in with her parents, joining millions of Americans returning to multigenerational living.
The number of American households with three or more generations living under the same roof rose 38 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to a new report from the United States Census Bureau.
Multigenerational households still represent a small percentage of U.S. living arrangements. But the increase -- more than double the growth of U.S. households overall -- shows that many Americans are starting to reverse the long-term pattern of living independently, experts say.
Both the longevity of seniors and their desire to live in age-integrated communities plays a role in multigenerational living.
Many times unmarried mothers will move back with their parents. Immigration from countries where the cultural norm is to live with extended families is also a factor.
But many experts say it is a trend that, even with positive byproducts, is driven in large part by financial strain.
"There were some winners and some losers in the 1990s economy," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "This is not happening because of family sentiment. It's happening because the middle generation needs help."
From 1990 to 2000, multigenerational households increased from 3 million to 4.2 million, representing 3.9 percent of all U.S. households. Nearly two-thirds of three-generation households include the householder as grandparent, living with the child and grandchild generation.
About a third include households where the parent generation is the householder, living with both a grandparent and grandchild.
That many in the parent generation appear to be moving in with their parents is a reflection of the high cost of living today, said Frances Goldscheider, a professor of sociology at Brown University.
When home prices are stable, families tend to separate, she says. As soon as they spike, "it is harder and harder for people to live independently."
In some cases, grandparents are moving in with their children, as older people live longer, healthier lives -- sometimes outliving their resources. But parents are also moving in with their parents because seniors tend to have more resources, especially those who bought homes before prices surged, Cherlin says.
The Census Bureau did not break down data by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. But immigration might be playing a role in the uptick, suggests Donna Butts, the executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes intergenerational public policy and programs.
"As families immigrate to this country, it is more part of the norm to stay together as it was in this country when it was first settling," she said.
Although higher mortality rates meant that life spans did not overlap as much as they do today, families were far less mobile in the 18th century, tending to stick in clusters. With industrialization, Americans gravitated to economic opportunities in faraway cities. But decades-old customs are changing, Butts says.
Retirement communities have disillusioned many seniors, and growing numbers are opting to retire where they lived working lives, or near -- or with -- their kids, she says.
Patricia McConnell moved in 1999 to an apartment adjacent to the house where her daughter and son-in-law and their three young children live in Waltham, Mass.
She moved mostly for convenience, she says: Her daughter was expecting her third child and urged her mother to move in. She had some reservations, though.
"I didn't want to lose my independence," McConnell said.