Over the past few years, many students have told me about their frustrations about possibly needing to move back to their hometowns and into their parents’ homes for financial reasons.
I have pointed out that living with one’s family is fairly typical in many places around the world and that even a few generations ago, this was the norm in the U.S., including my own family, where my mother was one of three generations living under the same roof.
With rising student debt, levels of inflation not seen in decades and housing costs hitting younger Americans, it is no surprise that my students are facing this situation. A new Pew research report has found that a quarter of American adults ages 25 to 34 (millennials) resided in a multigenerational family household in 2021, a significant increase from just 9% in 1971.
Pew uncovered gains in multigenerational living — that is, living in a household that includes two or more adult generations — among all age groups in the past 50 years, with the increase being pronounced among millennials today. According to an analysis of census data from 1971 to 2021, the share of people living in multigenerational family households had more than doubled to 18% of the U.S. population. Moreover, by 2021, young adults were notably more likely than older Americans to have this type of living arrangement.
While many of my students are less than thrilled about moving home, there is a possible silver lining to these newly reconstituted multigenerational households: They may just help improve our democracy.
The fact is that generations have notably different sociopolitical identities. Having come of age in different eras, different generations often maintain divergent attitudes toward social policy, questions of identity and political outlook.
Numerous surveys have shown, for instance, that younger millennials generally feel less politically effective than older generations today. When asked if ordinary citizens can do much to influence the government in Washington if they were willing to make an effort, fewer than 4 in 10 of these younger Americans believe that they can do so. In contrast, 55% of those 65 and older believe that they can exert influence.
A Pew survey found that 7 in 10 members of Gen Z (born after 1996) said the government should do more to solve problems, compared with just 49% of baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and 39% of the silent generation (born 1925 to 1945).
There are also appreciable differences on questions of social policy such as LGBTQ rights and the environment along with partisan identification. Looking at the issues around gender identity, half of adults ages 18 to 29 believe that someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, while about a third of those 50 and older feel the same way. And Pew has found that younger generational cohorts approved of Donald Trump (22% of registered Gen Z voters and 32% of millennials) at notably lower number than older groups (48% of baby boomers and 57% of those in the silent generation).
If families live together in shared spaces, conflicts will occur. Rather than being able to move into online echo chambers, family members may have to do the hard work of navigating dissimilarities. While some situations may worsen divides, it is still quite possible that family members will learn to listen, debate and disagree, and develop empathy for difference; minds may not be changed, but cultivating the skills to search for common ground could affect how these individuals move in the public and political sphere.
Moreover, sharing spaces with family members may also compel more political participation and improve our loneliness epidemic among younger Americans. Older Americans tend to be more likely to vote (my love of politics started when my grandma worked the polls decades ago and brought me with her). What if older family members help make younger members aware of how powerful their voices can be at the ballot box?
Younger Americans are also far more isolated and lonelier than their older counterparts. Having fewer cases of solo living arrangements and even simple expectations of shared family meals or other forms of family time might improve mental health conditions.
Adult children living with their parents in multigenerational households is certainly not a panacea and runs against an almost centurylong, post-Depression norm of moving out of family homes in young adulthood. But given new socioeconomic pressures, it’s possible that multigenerational housing arrangements could result in more tolerance for divergent views. In a society full of echo chambers, political polarization and deep mistrust, that might be a very good thing.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.