The Modern Way to Live Intergenerationally and Reduce Loneliness




In my last blog post I focused on the collapse of intergenerational living and the rise of fragmented family structures which has increased loneliness. Chronic loneliness is a health hazard equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day so our focus now turns to potential ways out. 

Human beings have become the dominant species on the planet by being remarkably practical and capable of adapting to ever changing circumstances. We are also intrinsically social animals. So if the family you were part of is no longer around the answer may be to create a new one, if you are prepared to reconsider who counts as kin. David Brooks considers this issue in the second part of his fascinating article.

Knitting people together

Anthropologists have long argued about what exactly kinship is and have found a wide variety of created kinship models among different traditional cultures. For much of human history people lived in extended families consisting not just of people they were related to but people they chose to cooperate with. They may not have been genetically close, but they were probably emotionally close. One study of 32 present-day traditional foraging societies, found primary kin (parents, siblings, and children) usually made up less than 10% of a residential group. As such kinship has been variously described as sharing a “mutuality of being”, an “inner solidarity” of souls, as people being “mystically dependent” or seeing themselves as “members of one another.”

When European Protestants came to North America, in the 17th and 18th centuries, their relatively individualistic culture existed alongside Native Americans’ very communal culture. While European settlers kept defecting to live with Native American families, almost no Native Americans ever defected to live with European families. Has our Western individualist culture, which prizes the values of privacy and individual freedom, been a huge mistake?

We seem to want both the stability and solid roots of close family as well as the mobility, dynamic capitalism and liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. Despite the damage caused by the collapse of the fragile structure of the detached nuclear family – rising drug addiction, suicide, depression, inequality and a detached, disconnected, and distrustful society – we do not want the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible. However, there are hopeful signs that Americans are experimenting with new forms of kinship and extended family, as a reaction to societal changes and family chaos, and that a new family paradigm is emerging as people search for stability. 

In 1980, 12% of Americans lived in multigenerational households but this has now risen to 20%. 

Brooks points to two forces at work. Economic pressures have been pushing Americans toward greater reliance on family since the 1970s, and especially since the 2008 recession, The share of children living with married parents began to inch up in 2012 largely driven by the financial crisis of 2008 as young adults moved back home: in 2014, 35% of American men ages 18 to 34 lived with their parents. In time this shift might not just be due to economic necessity as data suggests many young people are already looking ahead to helping their parents in old age. College students also have more contact with their parents than they did a generation ago. Sometimes derided as helicopter parenting or a failure to make your own way, it makes sense that young adults rely on their parents for longer than they used to as the education process is now longer and more expensive. 

Secondly, more older people are moving in with their children. The percentage of older people living alone peaked around 1990. Now over 20% of Americans over 65 live in multigenerational homes not counting the large share moving to be closer to their grandkids but not into the same household.

Immigrants and people of colour – many of whom face greater economic and social stress – are more likely to live in extended-family households. More than 20% of Asians, black people, and Latinos live in multigenerational households, compared with 16% of white people: extended families are becoming more common as diversity in America increases. African Americans have always relied more on extended family and the capacity of the wider community to take care of each other than white Americans.

The return of multigenerational living is already changing the built landscape as more home buyers are looking for homes to accommodate their parents or returning adult children. More houses are being built that enable family members to spend time together in shared areas whilst also preserving their privacy through separate entrances, kitchens and dining areas. Though catering to those who can afford such houses, they are a response to a realisation that family members of different generations need to do more to support one another.

Bridging the divide

However, the most interesting extended families are those that stretch across kinship lines. In recent years America has seen the rise of organisations that facilitate new living arrangements that bring non biological kin into family or family like relationships. It could be single mothers finding other single mothers interested in sharing a home or co-housing projects, in which groups of adults, often young singles, live as members of an extended family, with shared communal areas but a private area for sleeping. 

‘Kin’ is a co-housing community for young parents where each young family has its own living quarters, but also shared play spaces, child-care services, and family-oriented events and outings. Other co-housing communities bring together non-kin middle and working class people across multiple generations resident in small apartments with a shared courtyard and industrial-size kitchen with upkeep a shared responsibility. The adults babysit one another’s children and the extended family rallies to support members in difficulty or crisis. These types of experiments suggest people may want flexibility and some privacy but they also want more communal ways of living.  

Some programmes are helping prisoners convicted for serious crimes to create a form of extended family. Others bring traumatised veterans into extended-family settings. There are nursing homes that house toddlers so that older people and young children can go through life together. Others help disadvantaged youths to form family-type bonds with one another. There are many different types of forged families in America today.

These new families Americans are forming would look familiar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors as they are chosen families which transcend traditional kinship lines. The origins of the moden movement can be traced to 1980s San Francisco where gay men and lesbians, many of whom had become estranged from their biological families, came together to support one another to cope with the trauma of the AIDS crisis. The families they created had fluid boundaries similar to kinship organization among parts of the African-American, American Indian, and white working class. These family members could count on each other emotionally and materially and took care of each other. These groups, termed “forged families” or “fictive kin” by anthropologists, were pushed together by tragedy and suffering in a way that goes way deeper than a convenient living arrangement. 

Over several decades, the decline of the nuclear family has led to millions of people being set adrift as the relationships in their life, that should be the most loving and secure, have broken down. Over time, some of these individuals are coming together to create forged or chosen families who are committed to each other. The communities they create are providing the kind of care to non-kin that is replicating the support that used to be provided by the extended family.

Rich nations have much smaller households than poor nations. Arguably these rich economies benefit from us living alone or with just a few people as we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted so can devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs. The rich world's affluent can dedicate more hours to work unencumbered by family commitments as they hire people who will do the work that extended family used to do. This life can be emotionally empty when family and close friends aren’t physically around or when neighbours aren’t geographically or emotionally close enough for you to lean on them or them on you. The impoverishment of family life has led to a crisis of connection in our societies.

David Brooks often asks African friends who have immigrated to America what most struck them when they arrived. Their answer is always around a theme of the lonely way we live. The era of the isolated nuclear family has been a catastrophe for the non-affluent leading to broken families or no families or changing families that leave children traumatised and isolated or older people dying alone. Family inequality also undermines the economy the nuclear family was meant to serve as children who grow up in chaos have trouble becoming skilled, stable, and socially mobile employees later on.

The nuclear family has been crumbling since the increasing individualism of the 1960s which left many families detached and unsupported. Problems with education, mental health, addiction or the quality of the labour force stem from this. The nuclear family paradigm of the 1950s is not coming back yet people are hungering to live in extended and forged families. In ways that are new and ancient at the same time, people are experimenting with more connected ways of living and new varieties of extended families. 

Supporting new kinship models

There is an opportunity to deepen and broaden family relationships and allow more adults and children to live, grow and be supported in more ways than small or fractured families can provide to reverse the destructive decades long trend of having fewer and fewer kin. These shifts will mostly be cultural and driven by individual choices but government support would be needed to help nurture this experimentation for the working-class and poor whose family life is under the most social stress and economic pressure. This could include child tax credits, subsidised early education, and expanded parental leave. The two-parent family, meanwhile, will endure as for many people, especially those with financial and social resources, it is a great way to live and raise children. 

Cohousing communities in the UK are gathering a lot of interest, though the longstanding housing crisis, with property in short supply and out of reach to so many, may stymie initiatives to develop more communal settings that encourage forged family living. Longer term planning will be needed. For older homeowners with a spare room there are also cross-generational non-kin home sharing initiatives. 

However, there are more immediate ways to bring people together in our communities that enables them to recreate the benefits of extended families without necessarily moving in together. BuddyHub creates new, personalised and intergenerational social circles called ‘Friendship Wheels’. This is a direct response to the challenges created by chronically lonely older people having either lost their inner social circle or having no social circle close to home. These mutually beneficial relationships also offer a friendship solution to working age adults.

This writer lost her nuclear family to cancer, dementia and severe mental health problems way too young. So, forging a non-kin family has been a conscious and unconscious activity throughout my adult life. From the inception of the initiative, I spoke of people joining the “BuddyHub family” because I understood so many others needed to forge a new extended family around them, just like me. It’s incredibly touching to be thanked by a member for putting her ‘in contact with such wonderful girls. I am very happy that they are in my life. They are part of the family now!’. That sounds like a forged family to me!

I am heavily indebted to David Brooks for the thoughts in this blog.