In America, as in many modern western nations, chances are, as soon as you turn a certain age, generally 18 in America, you leave home, go off to college, and start your own family leaving your old one behind. Sure you may visit once in a while, but you are now part of a separate family. This contrasts greatly with multigenerational families of many traditional societies.
Often as many as three generations in traditional societies will live together. This was true during the pre-industrial period in the United States as well to a large extent; if you ever go into some of the really old houses in this country, you’ll find that while they have small rooms, there are a large number of these rooms. That is because grandparents, parents, and children would often live in the same house. There are many benefits to multigenerational living, so why did it fall out of fashion? There are many reasons, and in order to understand them, we must look at the last one hundred or so years of history.
Why is this advantageous?
Well there are a few reasons: first, both parents can spend more time working while the grand parents spend some of the time taking care of the children; likewise parents have some free time to actually still have a life. The other reason is that not every single person needs to purchase a house and a piece of land. This is a much better use of resources and reduces the financial burden of a family. Instead of two houses with two mortgages you have one house with one mortgage.
Another advantage is a reduction of dependence on the government. Many people rely on the government for basic necessities such as food and shelter. A large family reduces that reliance by having a strong support system. Even if a few members of the family are struggling, there are enough other members around to ensure that they are properly taken care of until they get back on their feet.
Are there disadvantages?
Of course. If there is a dispute between family members it could definitely be problematic and force a divide within the family; this would have a greater impact for multigenerational households than it would with single generation households, but given the number of advantages and the idea that a stable family structure should produce less conflict, it seems that a multigenerational household is a net benefit.
Why did they disappear?
There are many factors that caused multigenerational households to, for the most part, disappear from American culture. American individualism is definitely a major contributing factor; people in this country, and in western society in general, tend to idealize individualism and shun reliance on others.
Yet there must be more to it than individualism itself, and in fact, it is interesting to question how this idealization of individualism came about in the first place. One could argue that, since this country was founded as successive frontiers, families needed to be self reliant. However this does not explain the change in family structure and reliance on the individual rather than the family.
So then what? Well, it may be impossible to tell for certain, but one possibility–which is only a hypothesis that I happen to have–is that America’s public education system is partially to blame. First, the public education system forces us to become detached from our parents at a young age, long before we start school in fact; if our culture caused us to become attached to our parents by the time we started school, the trauma of being “abandoned” in an unusual setting and left with strangers would be even greater than it already is.
Now this may seem like an unintentional consequence, and indeed it may be, but while I’m on the topic, I might as well discuss a more sinister thought. It is well known, to those who wish to see it, that the education system in this country is partially designed to create non thinking individuals who will listen without question to the state and to the media; for that end, the destruction of reliance on family allows for the construction of reliance on the state instead, and indeed while we may be considered in part rugged individualists, so many in this country rely greatly on the government.
The last reason, which may again be seen as a consequence of the public education system, as well as a consequence of mass production, is the reduction in the number of family farms. Family farms relied on many laborers and a large family was the perfect arrangement; now that family farms are decreasing in number, there is less of a need, at least in that respect, for a large family.
Working from Home
While not specific to multi-generational households, another related topic is working from home. One or both parents, or another member of the family can spend all, or part of his or her work hours at home. This option has become available thanks largely to the internet, although not every job is suitable for working from home. Computer industry jobs are of course some of the ones that are most likely to give you the option. Working from home gives more time with your family and cuts down on the cost of commutes, including fuel and wear and tear on your car.
In the end, I believe that there will indeed be a resurgence, and we may in fact be seeing that already. The latest recession (2007 – 2008) has caused many changes in how people live their lives. People are foreclosing on their homes yet still need places to stay; college students who are unable to find jobs after graduation need a place to live and someone to help support them.
Whether or not this is going to be temporary or not is yet to be seen, but it’s quite possible that this will have a lasting trend, especially as more people start going to alternative school systems such as community colleges and trade schools and perhaps even specialized training in guild style settings.