Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Home prices, caregiving demands drive influx of intergenerational living

John and Kate Lawler in their home.
John Lawler with his daughter Kate Lawler in their home.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

The multigenerational home was the typical living arrangement in mid-19th century America. A century later the multigenerational home was the exception rather than the norm.

Yet, almost unremarked, several forces have combined over the past half century to reinvigorate the idea that multiple generations living together is a financially smart and emotionally rewarding choice.

In the first of a two-part series for Minnesota Now, MPR senior economics contributor Chris Farrell examines a powerful economic and social trend that shows no signs of peaking.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The multigenerational home was the typical living arrangement back in the mid-19th century. You might remember that. Perhaps a century later, the multigenerational home was the exception rather than the norm. Well nowadays, several forces have contributed to reinvigorate the idea that multiple generations living together is a financially smart and emotionally rewarding choice. In the first of a two-part series from Minnesota Now, MPR Senior Economics Contributor Chris Farrell examines a powerful economic and social trend that shows no signs of waning. Welcome back.

CHRIS FARRELL: All right, it's good to be here, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: The rise in a multigenerational family home situation seems like a pretty big shift in the way we live.

CHRIS FARRELL: Boy, it really is because in that period, the 1950s into the 1980s, we evolved into a deeply aged segregated society, and the change in living arrangements was dramatic. Marc Freedman is the co-founder of CoGenerate. It's an enterprise that bridges the divides between generations.

MARC FREEDMAN: We went from being one of the most age-integrated societies in the world to arguably the most age-segregated, what some people have described as a state of age apartheid, and housing has played a critical role in that transformation.

CATHY WURZER: I bet. So what was behind this decline in multigenerational living?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so there are several forces at work. Among the most powerful in the post-World War II society, we saw the rise of suburbia and the ideal that the two-generation nuclear family, new job opportunities for restless workers willing to move fewer immigrants, and the rise of retirement communities and senior housing.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, yeah, OK. But now we're living together again?

CHRIS FARRELL: We-- increasing numbers, Cathy. I mean, from 1971 to 2021 the number of people living in multigenerational family households, and that's typically three four generations, quadrupled to nearly 60 million people. The share more than doubled to 18% of the US population.

CATHY WURZER: OK, so what's behind the shift. There's got to be some pretty powerful forces, right?

CHRIS FARRELL: There are. I mean, this trend has been unfolding slowly almost inexorably since the early 1980s. But one recent and significant factor is something you talk about a lot in your show-- is the decline in housing affordability. Simply put, it's expensive for young adults to buy a home. Susan Wachter is a professor of real estate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

SUSAN WACHTER: Housing affordability in the United States has deteriorated substantially recently, and housing affordability, as it turns out, is now a new factor that explains this new surge in young people, having-- to take advantage of their parental home. Even if you have a job, you're staying with mom and pop in many markets because you cannot afford a starter home to own or even a rental unit.

CHRIS FARRELL: And Cathy, there are other factors that are important-- the waves of immigration since the early 1980s, extended families living on low and unstable incomes often lived together, and caregiving for children and aging parents also brings families together.

CATHY WURZER: Which is actually a pretty good idea. So I'm wondering, I'm also going to assume here that bringing the generations together under one roof is a financially attractive idea.

CHRIS FARRELL: Very much. I mean, look, sharing costs responsibility, makes it easier for everyone to do their work, pursue their careers. Pooling resources lowers the cost of ownership. Young adults, they can build up savings. The older generation draws down less on their retirement savings, and this is before taking into account child care and easy monitoring when the older generation turns frail.

SPEAKER 1: We're going to keep her home as long as we can do it safely and between the three of her, four of us-- five of us now with our other daughter living just down the road with her husband. So we're-- and even the grandkids have kicked in. I mean, if she wanders off without her walker once in a while gets a little gutsy, they call her [INAUDIBLE].

SPEAKER 2: It's very humbling, very humbling that they gave up their place their own place to share this house with us.

CHRIS FARRELL: So Cathy, what you just heard was John and then Carol Lawler. And John, he's a longtime potter, aged 75. His wife Carol, she was a flight attendant for some four decades. They've been married for 44 years. They have two daughters in their single family home. It's about half an hour north of Duluth, not far from the Scenic Cafe in Lake Superior across the street.

CATHY WURZER: Yes.

CHRIS FARRELL: And you know that well. And Carol had a stroke several years ago, and later, she was diagnosed with parkinsonism. So the family has come together, and when I met with them, Carol sitting in a comfortable chair near the entryway of their house, and the dog was beside her.

CAROL LAWLER: He's so helpful. He just can't do it all anymore. He can't take care of me and worries about me falling all the time. And so it's so nice to have them here, really nice to have them here.

CATHY WURZER: I bet it is. Can you give us more details about how everyone came together?

CHRIS FARRELL: Right. So their oldest daughter and her husband left New Jersey, and they now live about one mile away. Kate, their other daughter, and her husband and two children, ages 11 and 8, they were living in Duluth, and John built a 360 square foot addition to the home for himself and Carol to live in. And when that project was essentially done last year, Kate's family moved into the rest of the home, which is now theirs. So I had to set the scene for you, Cathy, while I was interviewing Kate and John, we're looking out over Lake Superior. It was a sunny, cloudless day. And here's Kate on the rewards of moving in together, including the view.

KATE LAWLER: To be close and have everyone together, the view, I can't argue with the view. But to be able to have the kids are super close with their Nana and Papa. So that has been a plus for everyone to have everyone with the kids. I think it's important to-- You see-- you hear of it more with kids growing up with grandparents and family close by and just to be able to help. They took care of me for how many years. So how can I return the favor some?

CHRIS FARRELL: And of course, John and Carol, they love having the grandkids around.

JOHN LAWLER: Well, last night Ellie came and sat by the fireplace for about an hour just to read. But she wanted to be close to Nana and Papa. So things like that. Ava will come in and just talk to me. I'd say that's the best asset of what's come together, and it'll be fun to see how it affects them growing up, having us in their lives every day.

CHRIS FARRELL: And so Kate works at Saint Scholastica. That's not a very far commute. Her husband is a cabinetmaker. The children, the grandkids go to school nearby, and John's remodeling allows everyone their privacy while at the same time, making it easy to stay in touch, says John.

JOHN LAWLER: We have our privacy. But yet, we also have the community. Ellie, my granddaughter, says three knocks on the wall means ice cream. So it's there. And yet with this wall, we just put up. It's soundproof. We can't hear anything at all on the other side. But yet, if we want to communicate, there's access to each area.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, it's nice to have a combo of some private spaces and a little area for mingling.

CHRIS FARRELL: The combination is critical. Toward the end of my visit, Carol came out of her room, and she tells me that for about 25 years of her airline career, she full on trips to Asia, and she saw how Asian societies put a much greater emphasis on the generations living together.

CAROL LAWLER: We do it here small scale compared to Asian people, and I just think it's the greatest thing. More people should do it.

CHRIS FARRELL: So we're standing by the entrance, and Carol was getting ready to go to the dentist, and Katie's going to take her there.

KATE LAWLER: Do you want to go through the front? I'm parked in the front.

JOHN LAWLER: What time is her appointment?

KATE LAWLER: 2:20.

JOHN LAWLER: OK.

SUSAN WACHTER: Right in Lakeside so. We got 20 minutes. We're good on time.

KATE LAWLER: Well, we'll see you when you get back.

KATE LAWLER: All righty.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, see, I like that. So it sounds like here-- and we're running out of time. I'm sorry to say this. It sounds like there are a number of really decent advantages to multigenerational living.

CHRIS FARRELL: There really are, and I just want to end on a note from John and where he just says something really moved me. It was about how powerful are the family bonds.

JOHN LAWLER: I want to help her out and keep her around us as long as I can, and that's the family goal. The girls and their husbands feel the same way as do the grandkids. So our goal is to create Fort Lawler. [LAUGHS] We'll see what happens.

CATHY WURZER: Nice story, Chris. Thank you.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell is MPR's Senior Economics Contributor.

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