The New American Super-Family

Cast of NBC's Parenthood (photo courtesy NBC).
Cast of NBC’s Parenthood (Photo courtesy NBC).

Amanda Gentle and millions like her are proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. You can go home again.

Like so many other Americans, Gentle was hit hard as the financial dominoes fell in 2008. The value of her house dropped while property taxes soared. When she was laid off from her job as director of marketing and sales for a small publishing company, she could no longer keep up. The bank eventually foreclosed on her Indianapolis home.

So, at 35 years old, Gentle did what numerous other 20- and 30-somethings are doing: She moved back in with her parents.

“It was difficult,” Gentle readily admits. “I had a successful career, and I went from being on my own, in a good place, to basically starting over.”

Gentle is not alone. Adult children of boomers— famously overeducated and underemployed—have created a moving-back-home tsunami. The driving force behind this trend is financial pressure, particularly rising housing costs, health insurance premiums, and college debt. About 8.7 million young adults ages 25 to 34 became part of multigenerational households in 2009, an increase of 13 million over 2007. Now, more than one in five young adults lives in multigenerational households.

But it’s not just the young who are coming home to roost. Many elderly parents of boomers are moving in with their children as well. All told, the number of multi-gen households grew about 30 percent during the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And a Pew Research Center report found that 51 million Americans lived in homes of two or more adult generations in 2009, compared with 42 million in 2000. That’s a 21 percent increase in less than a decade, but more importantly it reflects a turning back to what used to be, well, normal.

“We had a 50-year experiment of thinking of families as two parents and two kids,” says John Graham, co-author of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living. “What’s happening right now is that the 50-year nuclear family experiment is ending.”

A checklist from Nancy K. Schlossberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.So you want to live under one roof? To successfully blend multiple generations into one household, here’s a checklist from Nancy K. Schlossberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose.

Click image to enlarge checklist.


Not everyone is moving back home. Some never left. Dan, a 25-year-old healthcare consultant, lives with his parents on the northeast side of Philadelphia. While going to college, he stayed at home, and after graduating, Dan gave independence some thought, then decided to stick around. The primary reason is the money he’ll be saving. “When I move out, I’d like to be able to make a down payment on a decent place, not some hole in the wall,” Dan says. “The best way to save money is to spend wisely and right now, that means living at home.”

Dan, who requested that we not use his last name, considers the decision to stay put a no-brainer. Apartments in his neighborhood cost upward of $1,100 a month, and with a $15-an-hour job, his budget would have been stretched to the absolute limit. “I didn’t want to move out on a whim,” he says.

Whatever the circumstances, being an adult in your parents’ home is different from being a teen there. Before Gentle moved in with her parents this past January, the family sat down in the living room and discussed expectations, including chores, financial responsibilities, and how long she would stay. This phase of basically resetting her GPS could have turned into an ugly high school flashback. Instead, having new structure in her life was soothing. “After all the stress of being laid off and losing my house, it was very comforting to be with my family,” Gentle says. “I’m used to being very self-sufficient and independent, but it was nice to take a deep breath for a moment and get back on my feet.”

Gentle has found a job and plans to move out again soon, but author Graham sees multi-gen living as the wave of the future. “The boomerang kids’ experience is spring training for the long season of baby boomer retirement,” he says. “They’re learning how to live together. That’s vital, because in the next 10 years, boomers will start moving in with their children.”

He’s undoubtedly correct, but the trend of elderly parents rejoining their children has already begun. When Hurricane Irene raked the Eastern Seaboard this past summer, 79-year-old Lois Bechtel grew uneasy as the winds increased and the rain pounded her Stamford, Connecticut, home. Instead of weathering the storm alone, the retired executive secretary describes how she dashed a few steps into the adjoining house to be with her daughter’s family, safe and secure. “If I lived on my own, I’d be by myself in storms or other emergencies,” Bechtel says. “Now I know that if I get sick, they’re close by. It’s a comfort.”

Bechtel lives in an attached, “in-law” apartment that allows her privacy when she wishes. According to a 2010 Coldwell Banker trend survey, home builders are on the multi-gen bandwagon, increasingly incorporating in-law apartments and adding other features for extended family members, such as separate entries, multiple kitchens, and second master bedrooms.