Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

8. Grandma’s in the Basement (and Junior’s in the Attic)

Hanna Rosin
Senior editor,
The Atlantic

American families are supposed to disperse. We raise our children, they mature into young adults, and, if all goes correctly, they strike out on their own. That last stage is critical. Unlike the many cultures that rank filial duty above other virtues, Americans value independence. The self-supporting man (or woman) cannot be asking his mommy to do the laundry for him and going after the same Pop-Tart stash he raided at age 10. But lately it seems we might have to adjust that list of priorities. Recent census data show that the number of Americans ages 25 to 34 living with their parents has jumped to about 5.5 million—a figure that accounts for roughly 13 percent of that age range. Compounding this full-house phenomenon, the grandparent generation is “doubling up” too, as the sociological literature says. A recent Pew Center report, “The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household,” chronicles the trend: during the first year of the Great Recession, 2.6 million more Americans found themselves living with relatives; all told, 16 percent of the population was living in multi-generational households—the largest share since the 1950s.

The spike is just the latest result of a long string of personal disasters brought on by the recession: lose your job, lose your home, find yourself bunking with Mom again and experiencing “alternating surges of shame and gratitude,” as one Slate writer recently put it. For the young people expecting to be independent, the small humiliations are endless: How do you date, invite friends over, feel like a grown-up going to a job interview, when your mom is polishing your shoes? But family members also find, thankfully, moments of small, unexpected connection—while, say, laughing over old movies they used to watch together but haven’t seen in years.

And more broadly, the situation brings one major plus: the American family may finally get a long-overdue redefinition. With all the changes—more than 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, many families include gay parents or adopted children or children conceived via a variety of fertility technologies, couples are choosing to marry but not have children—it seems exclusionary and even cruel to keep defining the American family as a mom and a dad and two biological children. That’s not what our households look like anymore, so we might as well recognize that Grandpa, and some kids too old for ducky barrettes, belong in the holiday photos too.

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