Families are coming back together in ways this nation has not seen in 50 years.
Multiple generations of the same family are finding themselves living under one roof, as children take longer to leave home, grandparents care for grandchildren and adult children help care for their aging parents.
Since bottoming out around 1980, the trend has risen to a 50-year high because of more people needing help after losing jobs, filing for bankruptcy, facing foreclosure or having their savings wiped out.
As of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of Census data.
Those numbers are believed to be even higher today.
"This is a trend we will see increase in the immediate future," said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and leading author of the multigenerational family study.
In the past, it was fairly common for multiple generations to share the same roof.
The fictitious Walton family had three generations living together in the hit 1970s TV series set in the Virginia mountains during the Great Depression. There were 32 million multigenerational families in the 1940s, compared with nearly 50 million today. (The U.S. had just over 132 million residents in 1940, compared with nearly 311 million today, Census data show.)
Even the White House now qualifies as a multigenerational household with the president, first lady, their two daughters and the girls' grandmother sharing the family living quarters.
The trend has found its way into the newspaper funny pages.
Cartoonist Ed Stein brings a modern twist to the comics page with "Freshly Squeezed," a new strip that looks at family togetherness after the economic collapse. In it, Liz and Sam have a happy marriage, a precocious preteen son and a house that's just the right size for the three of them. But when Liz's parents lose their retirement savings, they're forced to move in with their grown children and grandchild.
The strip, launched in September, is based on Stein's own experience 20 years ago when his mother died and his then 80-year-old father moved in with him while he and his wife raised toddlers.
"It's not easy to try to balance a life where three generations are living under the same roof," said Stein, who lives in Denver. "I wanted to design a comic strip that touched the emotional reality of what people are experiencing."
Older adults, however, are not the age group most responsible for the overall rising trend. That distinction belongs to young adults ages 25 to 34 who have boomeranged back to live with their parents after being on their own.
Just 11 percent of young adults in this age group lived in multigenerational family households in 1980. By 2008, 20 percent did, according to Pew researchers.
"If there is a positive to this trend, it's that people and families realize we are interdependent and need each other," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United in Washington, D.C.
"Multigenerational family living is our roots. We will see a larger population of American families living in multigenerational households in the foreseeable future," she said, adding that even divorced people are cohabitating with ex-spouses now because they can't afford to move out.
Multigenerational living arrangements work best when families reunite by choice, such as when elder parents move in to help care for a child, or so grown children can care for their own parents without traveling outside the home.
"They realize a richness in past family traditions and culture being passed to younger generations," Butts said.
Multiple generations living under the same roof once were as common as horse-drawn buggies. In 1940, about 25 percent of the population lived in a household with more than one generation. But the extended family household fell out of favor in this country right after World War II, when the suburbs developed and single-family homes proliferated.
By 1960, Pew researchers say, 15 percent of U.S. households were multigenerational families. The number bottomed out at 12.1 percent in 1980. From there, it's been inching back up.
"The reversal has taken place among all major demographic groups, and it, too, appears to be the result of a mix of social and economic forces," the Pew report said.
One factor, according to Pew researchers, has been a wave of immigration -- dominated by Latin Americans and Asians -- that began around the 1970s. These immigrants are more inclined to live in multigenerational households to establish themselves after arriving here.
But the trend accelerated among native-born Americans in recent years with the Great Recession. The Pew research showed that in 2008, 2.6 million more Americans were living in such a household than in 2007.
Census data shows Hawaii has the largest percentage of multigenerational family households because of the high cost of housing there and because it is a more culturally acceptable way of life.
(Contact Tim Grant at tgrant(at)post-gazette.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)