Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.


Victor Davis Hanson on the autonomy of the American suburbs

In a column about how disasters can particularly affect complex centralized nations like Japan, classicist Victor Davis Hanson discusses how autonomy and decentralization is a primary feature of American suburbs:

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain…

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen.

An interesting argument that perhaps comes down to which is the higher value: avoiding the problems of suburbs including not wasting energy and the other commonly-cited ills of suburbia such as a lack of community, consumerism, a place primarily available to those with money, etc. vs. suburban (and more rural) citizens that are “independent-minded, free, and self-reliant.”

I can imagine some of the responses to Hanson’s claims about suburbanites:

1. Are they really free and self-reliant? Even with their single-family homes and relative autonomy, suburbanites are highly dependent on others for goods like roads and relatively cheap oil that make such suburban life possible. What about the need in the suburbs to “keep up with the Joneses” and perhaps slavishly pursue the newest update of the American Dream? Is the autonomy primarily due to the location and its lower population densities or because many suburbanites have the means or wealth to do what they wish (as do wealthier city dwellers)?

2. Are the problems of centralized systems in the face of major disasters enough to outweigh the benefits of more centralized systems in less troubled times? If a major disaster were to hit a major American metropolitan region and its suburbs, would the average citizen be better equipped to handle the situation?

500 to 1

I contemplated the effects of technological changes on law jobs several weeks ago when I posted a link to news reports about IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy.  The New York Times has written what essentially amounts to a follow-up article, and it’s eye opening:

Quantifying the employment impact of these new technologies [that help automate the legal discovery process] is difficult. Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, is convinced that “legal is a sector that will likely employ fewer, not more, people in the U.S. in the future.” He estimated that the shift from manual document discovery to e-discovery would lead to a manpower reduction in which one lawyer would suffice for work that once required 500 and that the newest generation of software, which can detect duplicates and find clusters of important documents on a particular topic, could cut the head count by another 50 percent. [emphasis added]

To be sure, 500:1 may just be the talking point of a businessman who is trying to sell his particular solution. Nonetheless, it seems clear that technology like Mr. Lynch’s is already fundamentally altering the economics of the legal profession.  We probably are headed towards a future with fewer lawyers (at least, ones performing discovery-related tasks).

What are some of the broader economic implications?  The NYTimes piece also quotes from  David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“There is no reason to think that technology creates unemployment,” Professor Autor said. “Over the long run we find things for people to do. The harder question is, does changing technology always lead to better jobs? The answer is no.”

Comparing pollution in cities versus suburbs

The Infrastructurist sums up a new study that compares pollution generated in cities versus that produced in the suburbs:

To illustrate this point, the authors of the new report examine per capita emissions rates in three locales in the greater Toronto region. The lowest per capita emissions rate (1.31 tons of carbon) belonged to the inner-city neighborhood of East York, home to dense apartments within walking distance of a commercial center and public transit. The highest rate (13.02) was found in Whitby — pictured at the top of this post — a sprawling suburb whose residents rely on automobiles to reach the shopping districts. Splitting the difference was Etobicoke (6.62), an area full of single-family homes but still accessible to the downtown core via public transportation.

The authors conclude:

The most important observation is that there is no single factor that can explain variations in per capita emissions across cities … .

An equally important observation, I might contend, is that the conversation about reducing emissions shouldn’t stop at the city limits.

It would be interesting to know what the authors then recommend.

But the larger issue still seems to be how to convince suburbanites that this pollution and emissions issue is a big enough one that they should change their behavior. Is some more pollution worth it to have the personal freedom and autonomy of living in a suburban, single-family home where you can drive in your car from place to place?

Defending the actions of “not quite adults”

In recent years, there has been a lot of research and conversation about the actions of 20-something adults who have moved back home in greater numbers and are waiting longer to marry and pursue careers. Are these 20-somethings lazy, prudent, or are they simply responding to a tougher world? While much of this conversation is negative, a sociologist talks about why he would defend the choices of these “not quite adults”:

Q: How do young people today compare with the past?

A: As we evaluate young people today, it’s like we’ve got the wrong benchmark. That kind of quick start to adulthood that so many generations have in their heads — all that grows out of the postwar period. (But) that’s the anomaly. It was a time when people were quick to leave home. They were also quick to marry. Why? It’s because economic opportunities were ample and social conventions really encouraged it. It was expected and also possible. But if you look further back, you’d see that a lot of the patterns today — with young people in a period of semi-autonomy— was also true of the decades before World War II.

Q: What worries you most about the future?

A: There’s so many negative portrayals of young people, and there are so many worries about why young people are taking their time. My bigger worry is we don’t want to push kids out of the gate before they’re ready. A quick marriage is clearly more likely to end in divorce and involve kids. That’s not good. Quick parenting? It makes it difficult to attain your education and to work full time and build skills and experiences that would help you over the long haul. That’s not good. A quick departure from home means you have fewer resources to invest in your future. Early departures from home are much more likely to result in poverty. That’s not good.

Q: Back to the main idea here. Why is it that today’s young adults have such a bad rap?

A: Maybe it’s just that each generation comes of age in its own time and what is true of one can’t easily be applied to the next. It seems like a timeless theme in history that older generations look down and think the younger one screwed up. What really matters and what we hope to show in this book is just how different the world is they’re trying to navigate, and it’s not just about personal choices. It’s about these big forces that have changed the very landscape of life. We have to not just point fingers at young people but also look at the things they’re doing right and see what we can learn from them.

An interesting perspective as this sociologist argues that this is really a debate about cultural perceptions and values. Within the American context, this idea of autonomy that arose after World War II is particularly interesting. It contributed to these ideas about leaving the house and quickly starting an adult life as well as led many to move to suburbs where they felt they could control more of their own destinies.

This leads to a broader question. What leads to better social outcomes for those in their twenties: to stay at home longer and take advantage of existing social networks or to strike out on their own at an earlier age? This researcher suggests several ways these actions improve the life changes of 20-somethings in several ways: lowers divorce rates, limits the likelihood of living in poverty, and increases the opportunity that those in this group can obtain a worthwhile education.  But I haven’t seen any research looks at data that would allow us compare people who follow these two different routes.