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Grandpa, Mom and Baby, Too — All Under One Roof


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The Great Recession forced many families to tighten their belts: cutting off the cable, cutting back on groceries, eating out less. But more and more Americans are making even bigger changes, pooling resources by moving in with relatives.

And while the downturn has accelerated this growth in multigenerational households, the trend actually started long before the economy turned south. Joining me now is a member of one such family. Christopher Collings lives in Hacienda Heights, California, and he's with us now by phone from Brea, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRISTOPHER COLLINGS: Hello Jennifer, glad you could have me on, thank you.

LUDDEN: So tell us, who lives in your house?

COLLINGS: It's myself, my wife, we have three daughters, we have a fourth child on the way, and we have mother- and father-in-law, my wife's parents there, as well as occasionally, about two or three weekends a month, my brother- and sister-in-law come down from Bakersfield, California, with their two kids, and my other brother-in-law, who is living in New York, where he models, he usually stays with us maybe a grand total about a month out of each year, usually a few days here and a few days there.

LUDDEN: That's a bustling house.


COLLINGS: It is, yes indeed.

LUDDEN: And why did you and your wife decide to move in with her parents?

COLLINGS: Well, it was a couple different things. We had already had a home of our own about 20 miles away, and my mother- and father-in-law had recently purchased a newer home here in Hacienda Heights and were selling theirs. It's quite a large home and we thought, you know, my wife at the time was driving 20 or 30 miles. It was a longer commute, and it just made sense to us for several different reasons, both economics of being able to just share the costs of a single household plus probably more importantly for me was that I come from a small military family, and we traveled the world, but there was never a lot of family around when I was growing up.

And once I met and married my wife, I sort of latched on to her extended family, which I always thought was a boon to be able to have a lot of relatives and family get-togethers that I missed growing up. So the idea of being able to have grandparents, my kids' grandparents, living with us was perfectly acceptable for me, and I thought it was just a wonderful idea.

LUDDEN: And that was OK with the grandparents, too?

COLLINGS: They've certainly enjoyed it. You know, having children around, especially three and a fourth on the way, all the time makes the household a lot louder and a lot messier, but, you know, children also bring a lot of life to a household.

You know, if my mother- and father-in-law, who are in their late 50s now, were living in a home on their own, probably it would be a lot quieter and a lot more empty, though. And they certainly - in fact they just returned from a trip to Taiwan, their native land of birth, and the first thing they said when I picked them up at the airport is how much they missed the grandkids, and they can't wait to see the grandkids, and it's all about the grandkids.

LUDDEN: Aw. Now it's obviously working well for you, but were there some adjustments? Were there some challenges there at the beginning?

COLLINGS: Oh, certainly, and maybe also I should let you know that I'm a normal, white Caucasian American. My wife is Taiwanese descent, and her family are also Taiwanese. So I am the only Caucasian amongst a sea of Asian faces.

LUDDEN: So some cultural differences to figure out there.

COLLINGS: There were indeed, yes. So it's not just generational but cultural.

LUDDEN: Like what?

COLLINGS: But, you know, the thing is I think the main point was that we were - our objective was that we love each other, it's a family, and we just make an effort to work through any difficulties. There would be difficulties both because you have - you know, I liken it to the fact that whether you're living with anyone, whether it's a college roommate or like when I was in the military, people I would dorm with or even when you first marry someone and you spend time, there's always a serious amount of adjustment and compromise when you live with somebody who has their own way of doing things and seeing things.

And we certainly had our fair share of that, but in the end, it was a matter of working through those things and just realizing that, you know, two good words are I'm sorry and trying to find the compromises. So I think in the end, we've been doing it now for nine years, and we just have a lot stronger relationship for it, and pretty much after the first two or three years, it became a lot easier - smoother sailing I should say.

LUDDEN: So you think - you say you and your wife have a stronger relationship for living with her parents?

COLLINGS: Well, my relationship with my mother- and father-in-law, I just call them mom and dad, is certainly stronger. They treat me like their son. And my wife and I, our relationship obviously is great. There were some difficulties, you know, that even stressed our relationship a little bit, but, you know, we just have a lot of love for each other and grace, and I think it just, you know, worked itself out.

I - honestly, there wasn't - there's no one great point of drama that I could point out. There was no fighting and yelling and screaming. It's more little things like, you know, the porch light left on because my father-in-law gets up early, and we don't. And so he comes in, and, you know, he wants to turn off the porch light because it's on at 8 o'clock in the morning when it's bright sunlight.

I know it seems little, but, you know, it's little things like that that we just have to be able to just work things out and accept that we see things a little bit differently, and we work to compromise to make everything run smoothly, and the same for them, too.

LUDDEN: And any tips? I mean, is there like a monthly meeting or a list of ground rules? Any tips for how to make it work?

COLLINGS: Yeah, I mean, I'm not a particular list person, and I think that if you try to set objectives like monthly meetings, it would probably go out the door by the second or third month just because it's life. And I think the main thing is to communicate. My in-laws would have a - whenever they had a point of conflict, they would often keep it within themselves and expect me to just know what that might be, and that certainly wasn't the case.

And once we were able to just communicate those things, and they could see that we were making efforts to accommodate them and vice versa, I think that was the real way. So if I had to make any recommendations, it would just be to communicate and to realize you're really on the same team.

I mean, living together provides - not only is there economic benefits there, but there's security and there's fellowship, companionship. You know, the house is never really empty. There's - you know, if anybody's injured, or even just as a simple as, you know, oh, the car's having problems, you don't have to worry about the logistics of going to someone's house and picking them up.

It's all those little things, and I think we sort of miss that in today's life with - you know, we don't know even who our neighbors are most of the time. So I've really enjoyed the opportunities of being able to have a nice big household filled with people, and I have no problem when the four people, my brother- and sister-in-law come down from Bakersfield, and they spend the weekend.

And the kids get along great, and certainly the children love having their grandparents handy, and the grandparents love having the children. I should also mention my mother-in-law still works. So she's not the typical, around all the time with the grandkids. She actually runs her own business and, you know, would like to eventually be able to spend more time with the grandkids.

LUDDEN: All right, well Christopher Collings, thank you so much for sharing, and thanks for your time.

COLLINGS: Certainly, Jennifer. You have a good day.

LUDDEN: You, too. And if this is your story, if you live with a multigenerational household, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk to crime writer Walter Mosley about his latest Leonid McGill mystery. But first, Katherine Newman joins us. She's the author of "The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents and the Private Toll of Competition." She joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.


LUDDEN: So, many people think of this multigenerational household as a new phenomenon with this recession, but it's not really. Is that right?

NEWMAN: We had lots of multigenerational households, especially before the second World War and the huge influx of women into the labor market. It was absolutely commonplace for older people to move in with their children before we had nursing homes and when we took responsibility for caring across that generational boundary.

What I think is new, relatively new, is young people moving in with their parents in order to shelter from the economic stresses that did predate the recession, that actually do go back all the way to the restructurings of the 1980s, and to the elongating period of time when young people need to get more education in order to qualify for professional careers.

So what's new is the phenomenon of people in their 20s and early 30s either boomeranging back into their parents' households, or in many countries other than the United States never leaving in the first place.

LUDDEN: And you mentioned the restructuring of the 1980s that kind of started driving this. What do you mean?

NEWMAN: I mean the period in which we first start to see pink slips raining down on people in the professions, educated, white-collar workers who were being outsourced and downsized. We had a period of sort of neoliberal reforms in the labor markets around the world where people who were used to having long-term jobs suddenly found themselves with short-term contracts and part-time work.

That's a kind of new phenomenon of what we sometimes call contingent work, which really made a powerful appearance in labor markets all over Western Europe and Japan and the United States in the early 1980s and has stuck with us ever since.

LUDDEN: So this multigenerational household, it's not just an American thing that's happening now?

NEWMAN: Oh, not at all. In fact, it's even more pronounced in countries like Italy, Spain, Japan. We're really in the middle. We're not on the extreme end. And we're in the middle in how we feel about it, too, because this phenomenon provokes some very extreme and negative reactions in some countries, and in others, it's, well, what's the problem, why me worry, why did they ever want to leave me anyway, which seems to be the typical reaction in the Italian families that we interviewed for my book.


LUDDEN: So what, though, what does it mean? So we have 20-somethings moving back in in large numbers with mom and dad. You know, are they doing this - you mentioned economic reasons but also people are getting married later and later. Are they moving back home because they're not planning on getting married or does moving back home make it more likely that they're not going to get married until much later?

NEWMAN: Well, there are a whole bunch of chickens and eggs in your statement, and they're all right, of course. There are economic drivers to the phenomenon I call accordion families. It has become much more difficult for young people to find their footing in the economy. That did precede the recession, but it certainly got worse during this recession.

It takes much longer to complete an education at a level that will qualify you for a professional career, so that's expensive, and you can shelter some of those costs by moving in to the inn of mom and dad.

So there are a lot of economic reasons that have particularly been at work in the lives of younger people entering the labor market. But there are cultural expectations, too. You know, when I was a kid, in my teens, there was a lot of cultural support for living pretty cheap and wearing blue jeans with holes in them, and you didn't care very much whether you lived in a pleasant place.

I think that that was an aberration, that sort of countercultural era. Now I think there's more of a desire for creature comforts but not the capacity to pay for them. So if young people move back in with mom and dad, they might be able to afford a nicer car, they might live in greater comfort than they could afford to pay for on their own.

They may need to save money for the master's degree they'd like to acquire or their experience as an intern where no one's paying them at all in order to get to where they want to go ultimately as professionals.

So all of those things, which are a combination of economic factors and cultural tastes, or generational tastes, play a role in pushing the creation of accordion families.

LUDDEN: All right, and we're going to hear some stories from our listeners after the break. We're talking about households with multiple generations under the same roof. Call us if this is your story, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Moving in with your kids or your parents appears to be a financial lifeline for many people, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Adjusted incomes for those families are lower overall, but the poverty rate among people in multigenerational households is significantly lower than in others.

The economy is just one part of this trend of more extended families living under the same roof. If this is your story, as a member of a multigenerational household, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Katherine Newman. She wrote the book "The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents and the Private Toll of Global Competition." And we also have some folks on the line. Amy's(ph) in Sacramento, welcome.

AMY: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

AMY: Oh, OK, well, we - I'm 37, I live with my parents still. No, I know it sounds funny but, you know, it was a decision we made together in '04. My husband and I had lived on our own right outside of Sacramento in Folsom. And my parents, who lived in my grandparents' house, built in the '80s, had - wanted to move, wanted to downsize because it's a house with a mother-in-law quarters in the back, where my grandparents were living.

And, you know, we didn't - the kids, us, we didn't want them to sell the house, and we couldn't afford to purchase it for what they needed to move on, and my parents asked us up one weekend, and we had a discussion about selling our own in Folsom, refinancing to add on. And we agreed.

And my husband's a carpenter. My dad's very handy, and we came up, and we made it one dwelling, and it's two homes basically attached as one dwelling. And so I live there with my grandfather, my parents and now my two kids.

LUDDEN: Oh, you have, what's that, four generations?

AMY: Yes.

LUDDEN: Your grandparents are still alive.

AMY: Yes.


AMY: My grandmother had passed away a few years back, but...

LUDDEN: I see. And what challenges have come up?

AMY: Well, you know, moving in as - you know, I moved in with my parents. So my husband got to move in with his in-laws. And I was working out of the home as a real estate appraiser. My mother was working and she retired, and she ended up working in the home. And the transition from being the child to having my own kids and then living with my mother, who used to, you know, raise me as a child, having to find it's not quite that boundary, but, you know, creating my own boundaries as a mother and becoming my mother's friend and being somebody to work together in a relationship different than the daughter.

You know, and so setting those parameters, and luckily my mother, you know, she's a very easy person to communicate with. There was a few fights because we were - she did end up working with me, and she wanted to change my daughter's bedroom, and she had - she is very strong, A-personality like myself, and we had to have those sit-down conversations of, OK, this is where I'm at, this is what you expect.

But, you know, I'm also a mother, and I want to rear my children. And having - you know, I heard somebody, a previous caller talking about how it actually strengthened their relationship, and we're finding that, too, but it takes willing parties, I'm noticing. It takes...

LUDDEN: And a lot of communication.

AMY: Yeah, and, you know, there was a few times where my mom threw her hands up and said you know what? I can't do this. I think we need to split up. There was only - it was two times in two years in a row, and the first year, I said, you know, mom, I think this is a relationship just like my husband and I. We have to work on it also. We have to work towards solutions.

And then the next year, we were going through it, and I threw my hands up and said you know, this is just too much. It's too much information. We have to work with, you know, five people instead of just me and my husband. And she said, you know, honey, this is a relationship. She said that back to me.


AMY: And I put my hands down and said you're correct. You know, I have enjoyed my parents more now. And - but it takes people that are willing to work hard, that are willing to look towards the common goal. You know, when we refinanced the house, you know, it's to benefit all of us. As someone else said, you know, when a car does break down, we don't - we don't abuse each other, as well.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Amy, thank you so much, appreciate your call. Katherine Newman, a lot of issues at play there, financial among others.

NEWMAN: Well, I think the thing we need to understand is that when young people, or even not so young people, move back in with their families, they're not the same person who was there when they were a teenager. And the role relationships aren't the same, either.

What I found on the whole was that it did make things more positive. This is particularly true when we look at people who are in their mid-20s who aren't married yet and don't have their own children moving in with their parents. They come back as young adults, and the parents no longer have the kind of surveillance obligations, you know, is Sally home by midnight, what's she doing with her boyfriend?

They sort of lose those anxieties around their homework or where are they going to go to college. All the many things that makes parenting stressful tend to sort of recede into the background, and what comes into the fore is something closer to an egalitarian friendship.

That can be difficult to negotiate, but it also has many positives associated with it. The other thing that happens is that those parents become, or remain, sociologically younger. They're not any biologically younger, but their roles remain as active parents. And if you define your identity by that activity, then you're not really moving on into that sunset year of the empty nest and the grandparent life. You're really the same person you were when you had your kids in the first place. You're an active parent.

LUDDEN: So it's keeping you young.

NEWMAN: It's keeping you sociologically young. So there are many silver linings to all of this. The problems crop up when there are either conflicts over who's doing what and who has what sort of authority. And for the younger person who doesn't appear to be making moves toward that adult metamorphosis. That does generate trouble.

If Johnny's in the basement playing video games, it's very different than Johnny's earning a master's degree...

LUDDEN: Or saving for a mortgage or something like that.

NEWMAN: Exactly.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's take another phone call. Jennifer in Oahu, hi there.

JENNIFER: Hi, I was just calling because we also live in a multigenerational home. My - I have a son who has special needs, and I guess our biggest problem is trying to define each person's role, like grandparent and parent. You know, grandma just wants to be grandma and doesn't really want to discipline, but when they live next door, like how we are, we live on the same property, you know, it's hard that he goes whenever he feels like he can escape from mom's discipline and run over to grandma's to a rescue.

But we just - we have a lot to deal with, like, you know, drawing the line of, you know, what she can allow him to do and not allow him to do. She wants to give him the world, but, you know, you can't spoil him that way because he sees them so much, it's kind of a different relationship.

LUDDEN: That's right. She can't do the spoiling all the time if she's there all the time. Interesting.

JENNIFER: Exactly. So we've actually gone through therapy.


JENNIFER: I know that sounds so - I mean, no, it's good.

LUDDEN: A new field for psychotherapists.


JENNIFER: We, we - yeah, somebody actually had to come in and kind of like talk to all of us, and just, you know, we cherish them enough that we wanted it to work. You know, we've got a really good setup where, you know, my son has every playground equipment and therapist you can think of, and they help us with a lot of that stuff. But it's just hard when, you know, he wants to do something like put his feet on people's ears, and she thinks it's the cutest thing in the world, and I'm trying my hardest to stop that.

My son has autism, so he does lots of quirky things that grandma thinks are cute and mommy's trying to stop, you know.

LUDDEN: Right.

JENNIFER: We've had to kind of set like a rule as far as like after 8 o'clock, you can go over there until bedtime, and I won't be monitoring what you're doing. But if you're outside, and you get to play with grandma, then she needs to follow by mommy's rules.

LUDDEN: All right, well, Jennifer, thank you so much for calling and good luck with making it all work.

JENNIFER: Thanks, bye-bye.

LUDDEN: Katherine Newman, we're going to let you go, but before we do, can you give us any kind of strategies to help make this work? You've interviewed so many families for your book. Were there tips that stood out?

NEWMAN: I think the kind of honesty of communication that your callers have expressed is really quite crucial. Trying to explain what your expectations are, how long is this relationship going to last this way, that is how long are we all going to be living together? Is this a permanent arrangement? Is this temporary?

Are we there to help one another achieve some goal? And what are the benchmarks in moving toward those goals? Like any other relationship, a certain degree of honesty and disclosure certainly helps, but I think that many of the reasons why these relationships work among your callers is that they've got older in the family that are still active, they're still healthy.

This is not a question of having to take care of them, but it might become that someday. How are those obligations going to be sorted out? What are the financial obligations of the people in the household? Do you expect your children to pay rent or to contribute to the mortgage?

In the Italian families I interviewed, those kids were helping to pay off that family mortgage. So who does that house belong to? Will that help them someday with some sort of asserts? Straightforward disclosure certainly helps.

LUDDEN: All right, I actually maybe said goodbye a bit too early there. I think you can - if you can stay with us, that would be great.

NEWMAN: I'm happy to.

LUDDEN: But we're going to be joined, as well, by Greg McGuff. He's a division president for Southern California - in Southern California for Lennar Homes. The company saw this trend toward more family members living under the same roof as a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy housing market. Greg McGuff is with us now by phone from his office in Corona, California. Welcome to you.

GREG MCGUFF: Hi, Jennifer. Thank you very much for having us. And I love the intro - an otherwise gloomy market.


MCGUFF: It is exciting to be doing something exciting in today's housing market.

LUDDEN: So what do you see out there? What's this market?

MCGUFF: Well, you know, what we see on the multigenerational front is really a market where, you know, you see one in five households currently living multigenerationally, yet you didn't really see a new home building or new housing providing homes for those buyers.

So what we're starting to see, as we brought on what we call our next gen product, the Home Within a Home, is we're starting to see a change in our buyer profile coming to our communities. And we're starting to see the demographics that are so strong, relative to the baby boomers, relative to the boomerang children, and just relative to people who are looking for a different, more flexible way to live...

LUDDEN: And does that include a lot of immigrant families? Hispanics and Asians much more likely to live like this. Is that right?

MCGUFF: Absolutely. I mean, that's what the demographics tell you, although right now, honestly, we've had, you know, a cross coverage of all the ethnicities - Caucasian, Hispanic, Filipino, Asian - and all for a different reason.

LUDDEN: So tell me about your next gen home. What's it like?

MCGUFF: Well, the next gen home, it looks like a typical single-family home, you know, that could be 50-foot wide. It's a 3,000 square foot home. But approximately 500 square feet are dedicated to what we call the Home Within a Home. So it has its separate entranceway, which really gives a lot of independence to the person living in the next gen suite. They have their own living room with a kitchenette, so they'll have a refrigerator, a convection microwave oven, a sink. They'll also have their own laundry area, their own bathroom, one or two bedrooms.

And what's also important is to kind of give a dedicated outdoor space so that they can have also an outdoor and indoor living, and it connects to the main home. So what it offers somebody is the flexibility of living independently, but also to be able to interface because these are families that are living together. And it avoids some of the conflicts we heard with, you know, some of your previous callers relative to porch lights being left on and how you operate within the space.

LUDDEN: And who's buying these homes?

MCGUFF: You know, people are buying it for a lot of different reasons. You certainly have a lot of people who are buying them now and seeing the flexibility in it, that maybe their sister lost their home, and they're going to live with them for two years. And their parents, you know, they're looking ahead and saying, my parents two years from now aren't going to be in a position where they can live on their own. And you see people who are now in a position where their mother is living alone, and they want to live with their mother. And you see their college children coming back into the home.

And you also see people buying it because in California you have a lot of people visiting the state from other parts of the country, or you have people coming over from Asia and have extended stays, and they look at it and say, this is fantastic. My mother-in-law comes for, her parents come for, you know, a month or two months, and they now have their own private space that they can live in and interface with us in a familial way.

LUDDEN: All right. Let me just say here, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take another caller. Mark is in Detroit, Michigan. Welcome, Mark.

MARK: How are you doing?


MARK: OK. We were looking for, basically, what the - your new guest is describing. We were looking for a house with the - with an in-law suite because we were trying to maintain - my wife and I were trying to maintain a house, plus help out her dad, who lives close by. And he is, you know, he is about 80 now, and we wanted, you know, something suitable for all of us. And the - we couldn't afford it ourselves, but by selling our house and selling his house, we were able to buy it. We actually - or it's like a partnership.

LUDDEN: And you suggested that or he did?

MARK: Well, initially, it was my suggestion, but, you know, we all got together on it and bought the house together. And it's - now we don't - we didn't find one with an in-law suite, unfortunately. And so the real issue, for us, has been, you know, space, you know? But it's hard to not be in each other's face all the time. The in-law suite, I think, is just a must. But, you know, you can't always, you know, you can't always that pull it off, so...

LUDDEN: All right, so...

MARK: ...at least in our area because those houses are few and far between.

LUDDEN: So there's more market out there that needs to be served. How do you manage the tight space with everyone?

MARK: Well, it's precarious. You know, there are times when - just for me because he's not my father. You know, there's pros and cons having him there, but that's what I have to do for myself. I have to think, OK, what are the pros again? I think I remind myself often what the pros are.


LUDDEN: Well, Mark, thanks for calling.

MARK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, Katherine Newman, privacy is a big issue in these arrangements.

NEWMAN: Yes, it is especially interesting when you talk to people who are, again, in their mid-20s, who would like to be able to have romantic relationships. How do they do that in the context of their parents' home? You know, all the people who've been calling you have fully-formed partnerships. They're married. They have kids. So they're past through all of those awkward stages of trying to find their life partners.

But when we look at younger people who are boomeranging back into their parents' house, it's a little bit more complicated 'cause in order to navigate that emotional terrain out there, it's difficult to do that if you're inside your parents' home. Even so, I find that baby boom parents are fairly comfortable with a slightly more liberated sense of privacy or sexual behavior for their kids. They're not so uptight about whether or not they bring a boyfriend or a girlfriend home. After all, they were the generation themselves that broke most of those barriers to begin with.

LUDDEN: That's right.

NEWMAN: So it would be odd for them to stand on a high horse with this. But it is still difficult for that young person to find their way when the economy is not really making it possible for them to do that autonomously.

LUDDEN: Right. We have just a moment left, but, Greg McGuff, are you concerned that once the economy rebounds maybe demand for this kind of home might fall off?

MCGUFF: No. We firmly believe that this has staying power. You know, when you look at the flexibility, and because it allows for some of that privacy and independency that the Katherine is referring to, we really believe it will continue. Also, if you just look at the change in ethnicities and the greater increase of, you know, Asian, Hispanic homeowners within our country, and it's also a way, you know, to curb urban sprawl.

So if you're caring for your mother, you don't have to drive five minutes to take her to get her haircut or to take her to (unintelligible) housing. And I also think, with the economy, it isn't going to change the fact that 350,000 Americans are turning age 65 each month in this country.

LUDDEN: All right. Greg McGuff, division president for Lennar Homes in Southern California, thank you so much.

MCGUFF: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And Katherine Newman, author of "The Accordion Family," thank you. Coming up, "All I Did Was Shoot My Man." We'll hear from Walter Mosley and his private eye Leonid McGill. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.