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Tough Job Market Forces Families Into Multigenerational Living

Last fall Katrina Jensen, 22, thought she had it all planned out. On track to graduate early from Indiana University, she already had several solid job leads to help her start a new, independent life. Unfortunately, the economy had other ideas. As the financial crisis and massive job losses spread, Jensen saw those job leads evaporate. After several months of searching unsuccessfully for employment, Jensen was forced to do something she never expected: move in with her grandmother.

Jensen is not alone. Because of the brutal postcollege job market, as many as 66 percent of college students plan to move back in with parents or grandparents, at least briefly, upon graduation, according to David A. Morrison, president and founder of the market research firm Twentysomething Inc.

Among 25- to 34-year-olds, 38 percent were living at home in 2008. Ten years earlier, only 15 percent of men and 8 percent of women in that age group had moved back home. What’s more, they’re spending longer periods of time at home. In the past year alone, the average stay for an adult child living with relatives increased from between six and eight months to between 12 and 18 months.

For those just out of college, “moving back home gives them psychological padding, as well as financial padding,” says Morrison. “It allows them to be choosier with the jobs they’re looking for.” But even those young adults who have found jobs may still find it financially necessary to live at home for a bit.

“Boomers in the ’70s were able to survive on entry-level salaries; many of these young adults are not,” he says. “Salaries have been outpaced by the cost of living.”

In Jensen’s case, she moved back to her hometown of Highland, Ind., to live with her grandmother, Mary Ann Maloney. Retired and on a fixed income, Maloney is the caregiver for her husband, Martin, 78, who is deaf and blind following a series of strokes. Since Jensen moved in, the entire household has had to cut back.

“I often feel like a burden … just another mouth to feed,” says Jensen. “But the job market seems nonexistent right now. I’ve applied for over 50 jobs since I graduated. I don’t know where to go from here.”

Many middle-age adults (the so-called boomerang boomers) are also moving back in with their parents, or taking their older parents into their own homes, often to help with their care or to supplement their fixed retirement income. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 3.6 million parents lived with their adult children in 2007, a 67 percent increase since 2000. (Figures since the economic downturn of 2008 are not yet available.)

As economic woes make intergenerational living arrangements more common, families need to know how to cope with the tensions and problems that may arise, especially when money issues exacerbate underlying conflicts.

Greg Womack, president of Womack Investment Advisers and author of the bookWisdom and Wealth,says the key to maintaining workable multigenerational living situations is clearly defined legal and financial spaces and roles.

“Children should be very careful in commingling parents’ assets with their own, such as being added as a joint tenant on accounts, deeds and titles,” says Womack. “Get a durable power of attorney in place for each parent. Get a health care power of attorney for each parent. Have a regular financial checkup with the parents.”

Womack adds that these clearly delineated responsibilities will help make intergenerational living much smoother and will empower parents and children in an emergency. His first piece of advice: Sit down with your parents and talk about these issues. That’s especially important for recent college graduates living with parents or grandparents. A lack of clear discussions about responsibilities and expectations between the parties in a multigenerational home can leave both sides unsatisfied, Womack says.

Jensen, for one, struggles to help her grandparents out. But without a job, there’s little she can do financially to contribute to the household. Instead, she tries to reduce her impact on shared expenses and bills. “I’ve been buying in bulk, shopping less,” she says. “The electricity bill has been a real problem. We’re trying to cut back on heat, too.”

Jensen says that she will continue to look for a job, in the hopes that someday she will be able to provide for her grandparents. In the meantime, she is trying to accentuate the positive in a difficult situation.

“I didn’t ever see myself moving back home after college, certainly not for a long time,” she says. “But every day at home is another day I get to spend with my grandmother.”

Freddie deBoer is a writer living in Connecticut.

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