‘The time of kai’, by Gottfried Lindauer. 1907, oil on canvas Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr H E Partridge, 1915 1915/2/48

Western families became increasingly independent of each other in the 20th century.  It was a change facilitated by both greater financial independence and the increased ability to travel across the globe.  Larry Light, CEO of Arcature brand consultancy, writes of the Baby Boomer generation:

They reconciled and continue to reconcile, individualism with family obligations. As grandparents often with an ageing parent still alive, the baby boomers wish to keep the independence that has been the hallmark of their generation whilst not abandoning family life.

By contrast, cultures such as the Maori, Pacific, Asian, and Indian cultures have generally retained closer family ties. But times are changing, and it seems multi-generational living is coming back into vogue across the world.  According to recent New Zealand research:

The tension between traditional practice and the modern preference for independence has somewhat obscured the recent reversal in the trend towards independence and individualism in ways of living.

What has been seen instead is a growth in multi-generational households in countries where this has not been the norm: hence the recent attention housing researchers from countries like the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia have paid to this growing trend.

For instance, in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, there was a 98 percent increase in extended family households between 1996 and 2013.  The project ‘Living Together: The Rise of Multigenerational Households in Australian Cities’ explored similar trends in Australia.

Do these trends signal a return to much closer family structures and inter-dependent living?  

If it means the whole household supporting young children, and parents being supported into old-age as a natural progression of life and responsibilities, I think it could be a good thing.  The world faces both dire fertility rates and a crisis of elderly care.

One significant driver of multi-generational living has been the decreased financial independence of young people.  Young people have been battered by high house prices, multiple recessions, and now Covid-19 lockdowns. 

For instance,  the average millennial in America has experienced slower economic growth since entering the workforce than any other generation in U.S. history.  Those in the 34-44 year old bracket are 50 percent less wealthy today than their counterparts were in 1989. Those aged 45-54 are about 40 percent less wealthy and those aged 25-34 are about 20 percent less well off. But those aged 55-64 are about 5 percent wealthier, 65-74 year olds are about 75 percent wealthier and those aged over 75 are over 100 percent wealthier than their counterparts in 1989. 

Other reasons which explain young people staying at home longer include the later age of first marriage (or cohabitation), and the longer time that spent in expensive tertiary education. More recently, many families have enjoyed being together during lock-downs which have prevented them accessing other company or childcare.

Another key driver is a crisis of elderly care, again a crisis perpetuated by Covid-19 lockdowns (or lock-ins in the case of retirement homes).  As a result of the many horrific care stories and forced separations, many families are now less keen on institutional care for their loved ones.  For instance, 75 percent of Australia’s deaths from Covid-19 occurred in residential aged-care facilities. 

The quality of elderly care will likely also be affected in the coming years by the sheer demand for good staff and facilities in a sharply aging global population structure (with the exception of Africa).  Over the next three decades, the global number of older persons is projected to more than double, reaching over 1.5 billion persons in 2050.

The Wall Street Journal notes a trend towards entrepreneurs and research focusing on how technology can help older adults as they age at home, including telemedicine, wearables and in-home diagnostic tests.  Architects, too, are focussing on how they can design more effective houses suitable for functional multi-generational living; something thus far neglected by the market.

Anne Hollonds, a psychologist and Australian Institute of Family Studies director, is encouraged to see more families trying shared living.

“There are tremendous benefits on the whole, for all three generations,” she says

It seems likely that the financial and social effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will further the trend.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...