There’s been a lot of discussion recently about whether or not children actually make us happy. To grandparents, the answer may be a resounding “no”—at least when they have to live with them. In a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, authors Angus Deaton and Arthur Stone state that elderly Americans—those over 65—who live with people under the age of 18 are significantly unhappier than those who do not.
Deaton and Stone utilized two Gallup data sets that were made up of identical questions about emotional well-being: one set reflected U.S. populations and the other reflected international populations. For the American sample, results were the same across the board: The elderly who live with children had enhanced negative emotions, including stress, worry, and anger. Living independently is seen as the national ideal for seniors, the authors say, and those who live in multigenerational homes may do so because of health and financial reasons. However: “Controlling for their background characteristics does nothing to contradict the generally bleak picture of the evaluative and emotional well-being of the elderly who live with children.”
In comparison to the U.S. and other wealthy English-speaking countries, Deaton and Stone found that the elderly of other nations mirror the emotional patterns of American parents: a balance of positive and negative feelings. Emotional life, the authors decree, is just more extreme with children.
While the NBER paper reasons that it’s still unusual for an elderly person in the U.S. to live with a child, Pew Research polls have found that a record number of Americans now live in multigenerational homes. In 2008, 49 million Americans lived in a multigenerational household—2.6 million more than the number of multigenerational homes from the year before.
This transition into family households harkens back to pre-World War II U.S. In their report, Pew states that after World War II the growth of nuclear-family-centered suburbs, a decrease in immigrant populations, a rise in health, and an increase in finances for those over 65 all contributed to a sharp decline in multigenerational homes. Now in its return, the multigenerational home has “taken place among all major demographic groups” and is once again a result of a “mix of social and economic forces.” The Great Recession is seen as the most dominant of these forces, but the wave of increasing immigration that began in 1970s, primarily by Latin Americans and Asians, is also a large factor. “Like their European counterparts from earlier centuries,” the report says, “these modern immigrants are far more inclined than native-born Americans to live in multigenerational family households.”
Despite the negative emotions found in Deaton and Stone’s work, seniors and entrepreneurs appear to be accepting the national trend. The AARP said multigenerational housing is “here to stay,” and Lennar Corporation describes itself as “The first national homebuilder to recognize the need of individual homebuyers and families to ‘double up’ in order to share the cost of their mortgage and other living expenses.” Their Next Gen homes are essentially two houses in one: each house has an adjoining inner door that, when closed, creates the impression of two residences.
It’s hard to think of grandma and grandpa feeling anything but rainbows and unicorns regarding their grandchildren, and Deaton and Stone make sure to include this caveat in their paper—sort of. “None of this is to argue that some elderly do not take pleasure in their grandchildren or in the children of those with whom they live,” they write. “But, on average, we can find no evidence of it.”