Although most westerners might no longer share a home with their extended family, living under one roof with your children, parents, and even grandparents – sometimes up to five generations – remains popular around the world. We tend to forget that a mere hundred years ago, society’s current focus on individuality and shaping your own life did not enjoy the same priority. As recently as 1900, living with several generations was still the norm in Germany, France, or Britain due to the realities – and restrictions – of prevalent work and living arrangements. Yet while many non-western societies, especially those with a strong agrarian slant, still champion multi-generational households, modernization and globalization are making quick inroads on this tried-and-tested model.
Nowadays, western thought tends to emphasize the need to “find oneself” and achieve economic independence through separation from the family unit. According to anthropological studies, adulthood is attained via gradual, specific steps that are considered integral parts of ‘growing up.’ The top three of these involve getting a job, moving into one’s own living quarters, and getting married. At the same time, these benchmarks – and their order – have become less important in recent years. Unlike our parents or grandparents, we tend to enter the professional realm later in life due to longer education and the changing job landscape. Furthermore, marriage is no longer a social necessity (’till death do us part’), with common-law partnerships offering just the same benefits at more flexibility and fewer constraints. Last, but not least, moving out has lost its landmark status: While we might leave home to complete our – parent-sponsored – education, many of us will return for a spell due to job insecurity: Sociology calls this the ‘boomerang’ effect.
And there are clear upsides to cross-generational living: According to surveys, it prolongs the average life expectancy and helps the growing number of elderly people who, at some point, will require assistance. Due to the high costs of assisted living, individual accomodation comes with increasing problems.
Recent years, however, have seen a resurgence of the multi-generational household. Social studies like the Generations and Gender Survey, which take a close look at our living arrangements, suggest that the number of households with three or more generations might actually be on the rise again. One of the most prominent examples includes President Obama, who shares the White House with his children and mother-in-law. Without Grandma Robinson taking care of the kids and other family responsibilities, Obama would not have been able to run for office – and move into the White House – in the first place. And the benefits of multi-generational living are obvious: It lowers the overall cost of living, shares responsibilities among many, frees up time or increases flexibility, and helps to pass skills and knowledge down the generations.
But why should the multi-generational bonus be restricted to those blessed with tight-knit families that share the same outlook? Several smart social projects fill the gap with ‘match-making’ services for interested parties. Take Vienna’s “WGe! Gemeinsam statt einsam wohnen” (living together instead of alone). The project matches potential roommates and ‘landlords’ via its online portal. Elderly people, or those with spare rooms, can offer living space to students, single parents, and others with limited financial resources. Rent is not paid in cash, but through small tasks carried out around the house or social services. Odd jobs might involve anything from changing light bulbs and cleaning floors to mowing the lawn. No arrangement is the same – and no contract resembles another – yet they all aim for mutually beneficial results. And anyone is welcome to join the project.
A similar concept enjoys growing popularity in Lorraine, France. Here, demographic restrictions make the concept less inclusive, but more tailored to regional needs. Many young students, most of them away from home for the first time, come to the area to study at one of the local colleges, but struggle with expensive student accommodation. To ease the financial burden, these freshmen are placed with elderly people in assisted living facilities with plenty of vacancies. The resulting project, Un toit deux générations (one roof, two generations), is part of a larger French scheme, Cohabitation Solidaire Intergénérationnelle, that encourages inter-generational exchange. In Lorraine, new students profit from the free accommodation and an instant family structure, while senior citizens get help with chores and enjoy the company.
Multi-generational households and projects like those practiced in Vienna and Lorraine offer a welcome alternative to the individualistic challenges we face at the beginning – and end – of our lives. Living as an extended family, by blood or choice, makes a lot more sense and helps to lighten many of our future demographic challenges.
Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: marshi/ photocase.com