Originally Published in Flourishing May/June 2010
The men pictured here are my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and his father. You would have figured it out, but I didn’t want you to have any doubts.
George Washington Harvey, my great-grandfather, was born in Peoria County, Illinois in 1853. His father, Isaac, was born in London in 1818. Sometime around 1880, George W. brought his parents, Isaac and Sarah, to Afton Township in Sedgwick County, Kansas. Like 90% of all Americans at that time, the Harvey’s were farmers. (The Harvey homestead now forms the bottom of Lake Afton, southwest of Goddard.)
George W. was widowed in 1897. Isaac died in 1903; Sarah in 1926. With nine children, and with his parents living with him, George W. Harvey was, for many years, the head of a multi-generational farm household.
In 1900, that wasn’t unusual. Back then, 57% of all Americans over age 65 lived in multi-generational households. But then, a strange thing happened. With the introduction of electrically driven machinery and gasoline powered engines, labor productivity, especially on the farm, improved dramatically. The demand for farm labor, supplied primarily by children, fell off a cliff. Naturally, “kin availability” for multi-generational household formation also fell. The kids could and did leave home for jobs in nearby cities and towns. Some even moved out of state.
Ordinary Americans prospered as never before. Living in population centers, however small, they reaped the benefits of industrial capitalism’s spontaneously-ordered, division of labor, wealth-creating structure. People acquired specialized knowledge and became highly skilled in those specialties. They became more valuable to their employers and their communities, and to themselves. The American economy became more diversified. Opportunities multiplied.
With the division of labor and skill specialization, people could earn more and save more. They could invest more in the education of their children. As they became more independent financially, they became more independent psychologically, as well. This process was interrupted somewhat by The Great Depression, but the trends toward greater wealth, education, and mobility resumed with the end of WWII. By 1990, only 17% of Americans over the age of 65 lived in multi-generational households.
That trend away from multi-generational households, which lasted for most of the twentieth century, now seems to have reversed. Today, 20% of all Americans over the age of 65 live in multi-generational households, up from 17% in 1990. Why?
Probably, the single most important reason is a return of “kin availability”. Yes, the kids still go away to college and they are more mobile than ever, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States in 1900 was only 76 million. Today, the Baby Boom Generation alone is bigger than that. That’s a lot of people who are able, and often anxious, to accept their parents—even their grandparents—into their households. Unlike the early twentieth century, most people are not tied to the land. Almost everyone, not just the young, can relocate on relatively short notice. Another important factor, of course, is longevity. Ninety is the new normal.
As you know, women, on average, live longer than men. For many widowed ladies, the idea of living with the kids seems more agreeable than living alone. Though there are fewer of them, elderly single men often prefer living with family, too. It’s true that in their common quest for love or companionship, some of these older singles will find new soul-mates. God bless them if they do; but few call out, and fewer are chosen.
That brings me to a final, important point. Supply and Demand. In 1900, only 5.9% of Americans over age 65 lived alone. Today, 17.9% do. A lot of aging parents do not want to be alone or in long-term care facilities. Many of their children are able, and some are willing, to accept them into their households. That situation could continue for quite a long time, and it’s something that almost everyone needs to think about. mh