In New Rules: Searching For Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down, pollster Daniel Yankelovich observed in 1981:
One of the most far-reaching changes in norms relates to what parents believe they owe their children and what their children owe them. Nowhere are changes in the unwritten social contract more significant or agonizing. The overall pattern is clear: today's parents expect to make fewer sacrifices for their children than in the past, but they also demand less from their offspring in the form of future obligations than their parents demanded of them. (p.102)
The aging revolution has certainly challenged the bonds between parents and children, on top of the challenges brought by recent trends in divorce, single parenting, mothers' involvements in the labor force, a cultural narcissism (Me-ism) spawned by capitalism and individualism, and "traditional" family functions being assumed by the service sector of the economy. In the 1980s came reports that the average American female will care for aged family members over a longer period than time spent raising her children. And then there are all those sad stories of family violence and neglect, of "granny bashing" and "granny dumping".

With such issues in mind let us consider an interesting longitudinal trend revealed in national surveys. Since 1973, the NORC General Social Surveys have included the following question: "As you know, many older people share a home with their grown children. Do you think this is generally a good idea or a bad idea?"

In total,  Americans have been closely split: 43% thought it to be a good idea, 41% thought it to be a bad, and 16% said it depends.  And how do responses vary by age?  The percent thinking it a good idea steadily declines with age, from 54% of those 18-29  to 21% of those eighty years of age and older.  Over time, however, the percentage thinking it is a good idea for the old to share a home with their grown children has increased, from 33% in 1973-76 to 50% in the 2000-2002 period. Do you sense some generational dynamics are at work?  Let's employ the lessons learned when thinking in time.

In the right-most column of the table below are the cohort totals.  Over the 29 surveyed years most of those in the oldest cohort died out (and there may be some class bias as higher status persons live longer than their lower status counterparts) while those in the youngest cohorts entered our sample over time (i.e., those born in 1984 were not picked up by NORC researchers until the 2002 GSS as only then were they eighteen years of age).  In the bottom row are the age-group totals collapsed over all survey years.


18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60-69 70+ COHORT
1970-on 58% 57%
1960-69 58 55% 57%
1950-59 50 54 55% 53%
1940-49 38 44 48 43% 44%
1930-39 39 37 41 35% 38%
1920-29 33 35 29 23% 31%
1910-19 28 24 24 24%
1900-09 24 21 22%
54% 51% 47% 39% 28% 23% 27,134

Within the table we have several snapshots in time of different birth cohorts at different points in their life-cycle.  When looking at the four percentages in each column we can compare the responses of different cohorts when at the same age.  It appears that the percent believing that such multigenerational households is a good idea increases the more recent the cohort.

Hypothesis time.  What factors account for this trend, especially given Yankelovich's observations above?  Does it reflect a growing sense of obligation to one's increasingly long-lived parents or is it a strategy of the downwardly mobile middle class hoping to increase its inheritance (an estimated six trillion dollars will be inherited by Baby-boomers in the near future)?  What bearing does parental divorce or parental contributions to one's education (or perhaps to one's first home) have on this increasing favorable orientation?

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