Dude, Granny used all the hot water!

As recession looms, the intergenerational family makes a comeback.

By Amy Benfer

Published November 19, 2008 6:17PM (EST)

Watching the market meltdown this fall, I began to envy my parents. Previously, things had looked pretty bad for them: My father’s company, where he had worked for two decades, spent the last five years of his career threatening to lay him off (and therefore reduce his pension). But last August, they made it: Dad hit 65, having paid off the house and the car, and settled into retirement. And by September, their two-person, fixed-income household looked way more secure than my own (two mid-career professionals, one college kid with a coffee shop job). Already, my boyfriend and I are joking about which set of parents we’ll move in with first when things really go to shit.

Apparently, for many people across the country, that joke isn’t funny anymore. This week, we dug up three different features on families who have responded to tough times by putting an extra generation -- or two -- under one roof. The L.A. Times found a 35-year-old married couple who moved back with the wife’s mother, ostensibly to help Mom make the mortgage, only to end up in debt to her a few months later when both of them lost their jobs. Another parent ended up housing two of her adult children and their children when both of them had to rent out their own houses in order to make their mortgage payments.

While the Times doesn’t yet have figures about adult children moving in with their parents, the trend of parents moving in with their adult children is real, according to the Christian Science Monitor, which cites Census figures indicating that the number of parents 65 and older living with their adult children has grown by 62 percent between 2000 and 2007, while the number of parents under 65 who did so has grown by 75. All things being equal -- enough space for all; more or less equitable incomes -- a few extra adults in the house can mean more people to bring in the money and share the cooking, cleaning and childcare. But when things fall apart, warns Allen Hager, president of Right at Home in Omaha, Neb., it’s often the women of the house that get the brunt of it: “Women are taking on [most] of the household, child-rearing, and senior care."

Case in point is Shelley Abreu’s first-person essay in Babble, which bristles with resentment at her burden of having to support herself, her children and her elderly mother, after her father died leaving some debt and few assets. Abreu and her husband bought her mom’s house, built an addition, and moved in. "With three children ages four, two and four weeks, a ninety-five pound golden retriever, my husband, myself, and my sixty-one-year-old mother, things certainly feel cramped," she writes. Instead of saving for her kids’ education or even paying for dancing lessons, she is, essentially, paying for her mother’s retirement. "It's sacrifices like these that make me feel occasionally resentful, not only of my mom, but of my father for leaving us in this mess," she writes. "But I do value what this experience has taught me: to be more responsible than my own parents were." That is, if she has any cash left to manage in a responsible manner.

In the 19th century such arrangements were common, historian Stephanie Coontz tells the L.A. Times, until psychologists argued that living with the in-laws could make people go a little crazy. But she does see some advantages. "Grandparents can be more grand-parental and develop closer family ties, and having more people in a house can sometimes be a buffer for overly intense marital relations or parent-child relations," Coontz says. "To the extent that we are stuck with this happening, it does give us a way to rediscover aspects of family life we've been ignoring for the last 80 to 100 years."


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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