Advantages And Drawbacks Of 'Accordion Families'

In sociologist Katherine Newman's new book, The Accordion Family, she argues that globalization and weak economies have caused households to expand and incorporate grandparents, parents and children under one roof. Host Michel Martin speaks with Newman and two other women who live in multi-generational homes.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now, you might have heard stories about adult children moving back in with their parents or grandparents coming to stay with their children. Well, according to the Pew Research Center, one in six Americans now lives in a household like that. That's more than a 10 percent increase since 2007.

So, today, we thought we would like to talk about the blessings and the challenges of these multigenerational living arrangements. We're joined now by Katherine Newman. She's the author of a new book. It's just out today called "The Accordion Family." She's a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. She's also the mom of a 22-year-old son who's living at home.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Elizabeth Fox. She's the mother of two and grandmother of two. Her daughter's family moved in with her six years ago. Welcome.

ELIZABETH FOX: Thank you. Great to meet you.

MARTIN: And Rebecca Aguilar is the mom of one teenaged son. Her father-in-law has lived with her family for the past 10 years. Nice to hear from you, too.

REBECCA AGUILAR: Hi there.

MARTIN: Well, Katherine Newman, let's start with you. Your book comes out today. What is an accordion family? I mean, for a lot of people, that's just normal, isn't it?

NEWMAN: Well, it hasn't been normal for quite some time, but basically, an accordion family is a multigenerational household in which you have adult children over the age of 21 living with their parents. And, actually, that has not been the norm in the middle class for some time. It would have been the norm before the Second World War, but it really hasn't been for some time now...

MARTIN: And what is driving that?

NEWMAN: ...with the economic difficulties that young people find themselves in.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about that. I interrupted you. It's just - this is relatively recent because of the economy, which seems to be hitting younger people, younger workers very hard.

NEWMAN: Exactly. Now, that said, it's actually a trend that's been in play for some time now, so it's not unique to the recession we've been mired in. But, really, ever since about the early 1980s, we've seen a pretty steady increase in the proportion of young people of this age group that have been either moving back with their parents or who don't leave in the first place.

And that's mainly because the economy has been changing in ways that make it difficult for young people to find entry level employment that really pays enough for them to be independent. As well in the middle class, where we see ambitions for professional futures, it takes longer and longer and more and more money to achieve the kind of educational credentials needed to launch a middle class professional life.

So we see young people who complete college and move back in with their parents in order to shelter those costs of the master's degree or experience with an internship where they're not earning any money at all in the hopes of launching at a higher level when they get a bit older.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Fox, you actually call your home project intergenerational living. Tell us a little bit more about that. How was it decided that your daughter and her family would move back in with you?

FOX: Well, unlike some of what Katherine mentioned, both our children got as far away as they could after college. They were 15 years out in California, but our daughter and her family, when they had children, basically, decided to come east and started with us. And after a few months, we said, you don't really need to look for a house way out there in the burbs where you could afford it. Stay here. And that's what happened.

MARTIN: And there was no - it sounds so smooth. Was it really that smooth?

FOX: It was a pretty smooth transition there. It just - you know, we were able to share the costs of renovating the house somewhat so everyone had some privacy and we were bonded with the grandchildren by then and all of the benefits were starting to come.

MARTIN: Okay. Rebecca Aguilar, how about you? You have a teenager and an 84 year old in the same house. How did that arrangement come about?

AGUILAR: Well, we kind of started talking about it a long time ago when I married my husband. We were living in Los Angeles and my father-in-law would come and visit with my mother-in-law and I just adored him because, you know, every time I'd leave for work, I'd come back and here's this huge lasagna dinner and I'm thinking, I need this man in my life.

And so we would take these long walks. It was great. And I'd always say, hey, Pops - that's what I call him, Pops. I was like, if anything ever happens to Betty, I want you to move in with us. And he's like, you're crazy. I go, no. I really do. And I kind of wanted him to move in before Mom - my mother - moved in, but anyway - and so what happened is, sure enough, unfortunately, my mother passed away in 2001 and I said, Pops, you know, if you want to move in with us - you know, I didn't want him to be alone. I live in Texas and he lived in Long Island and I didn't want him to be alone.

And I'm Mexican-American, so both my parents - their families took in their parents. So it's kind of a cultural thing with us, too. So we, in our family, my brothers, sisters, we had already talked about who's going to take in our parents. It's just part of our culture. And so my father-in-law moved in and it's been the best. It has been - my 15-year-old adores him. They do a lot of things together. It's rebuilt the relationship between his son and himself because, you know, I mean they didn't really talk a lot when they were under the same roof and now, you know, they're recapturing that time, and it's wonderful and he's great. I'm a reporter by profession, so when I have to go out of town I, you know, I trust my father-in-law. I trust that my father-in-law is in good hands with my 15-year-old and my 15-year-old is in good hands with my 84-year-old father-in-law.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about multigenerational living. We're talking about the challenges and blessings of having grandparents, parents, adult children, all under one roof - teenagers, kids. We're talking with Rebecca Aguilar, that's was speaking just now. Her household includes her husband, teenage son and father-in-law. Elizabeth Fox is also with us. Her daughter and grandchildren lives with her. And also with us, Katherine Newman, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book is called, "The Accordion Family," where she talks about this.

Now Prof. Newman, I'm not investigating for pain here, but that the families who - the moms we're speaking with, this has worked out nicely. It seems to be a wonderful arrangement that just provides a sense of kind of mutual, you know, support. But I'm thinking for some people there's probably some shame attached to this. You can see a scenario where the arrangement isn't as welcome. Can you describe a little bit of that? I know you talk about that in the book. What are the circumstances in which this doesn't seem to be working out as well?

NEWMAN: It's more complicated in households where the young person who's joined - rejoined the family - isn't making progress toward a more independent future. If Johnny is playing videogames in the basement and seems to be avoiding the hard choices and difficult aspects of growing up and taking his place ultimately in some adult role, then that can be a source of real frustration. Or if the young people in the house aren't pulling their own weight, if they expect to be treated or cared for as they did when they were little children, that can get to be frustrating for their parents, especially if both parents are working for a living.

So, you know, I'm actually pleased to say that much of the time this works out exceptionally well, as has been described by your guests. Because in many accordion families, the return of the young adult provides an opportunity for parents to get to know their children as equals or as something closer to equals because they subtract out all of those onerous responsibilities for surveillance. You know, is Mary home at midnight? What is Johnny doing at two in the morning? All those, you know, are they getting their homework done? Those are the kinds of questions that they had to entertain when those young people were teenagers and the official responsibility of their parents.

But if they return at the age of 23 or 24, they're a little bit more like autonomous adults, a little bit more like roommates or boarders with a lot of affection thrown in on the side. And for baby boom parents who worked their way through their children's childhood and adolescence, they may not have had as much time with them as they would like. And so when those young people return as more independent, not completely independent clearly, but more independent adults, maybe even contributing to the household - as is true for your guests, then it can be a very pleasurable experience, as long as it looks like it's got an endpoint in which everyone assumes the roles that society assigns to them, which includes a degree of autonomy and self-determination and responsibility for that young adult.

MARTIN: Well, Elizabeth, that's interesting because your arrangement doesn't have an endpoint.

FOX: No.

MARTIN: No.

FOX: No. We all went into this the idea that it's forever. And I would say that if you look at some of the reasons why people do this, most often it is economic. We do have financial savings for our housing costs, which we share 50-50. And for my husband and me that was a substantial savings - and for them as well, they can live in a better place, better location; not commute and all that. But I think that the strains would be great if you are one of the many people in this circumstance who are really barely, barely making it. I think that financial constraints are just, you know, huge if you're sharing them with more people who are in that situation.

The other thing is that if you as a grandparent did not respect your children's parenting that would be very hard for all of you, and that's not at all the case with us, fortunately.

MARTIN: How does dinner work out? How do you do dinner?

FOX: Oh, you hit on the one strain - the kitchen. You know about group homes, those who've lived in groups? It's kind of the same, you know, but we're pretty highly scheduled. We have a calendar up on our computers and, you know, who's doing the dinners and who's doing the transportation of the boys to school and so on. So I would say we've got it as managed as well as possible.

MARTIN: So you've got a schedule like who's going to do dinner on what night and who's going to do what?

FOX: Oh yes.

MARTIN: So does your daughter ever say mom, you're not cutting it, you're not pulling your weight on the dinner thing?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's too much takeout on your night?

FOX: We have monthly meeting. We have a monthly meeting that's got its own agenda; you check off things, you try to raise things so they don't become problems.

MARTIN: Wow. Does everybody get an equal vote kind of thing?

FOX: Yes. Well, do the boys get an equal vote? Probably not quite.

MARTIN: Wow, that's interesting. Rebecca, what about you? Are there any pressure points for you? Are there any strains for you?

AGUILAR: Wow, I keep listening to everybody and I don't seem as organized. I, we kind of wing it. I mean it's just I didn't really have any rules. I just said, you know, mi casa es tu casa kind of thing, you know, my home is your home. I didn't want my father-in-law - I don't know, he was such an easygoing guy. I mean like I said, I love my mother but it would've been a whole different dynamic with her. So with my father-in-law, we didn't do it for, you know, because of financial reasons or anything like that. We did it because I just didn't want my father-in-law to live alone.

MARTIN: What about for your husband?

AGUILAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because you didn't have to relive, you don't have to live adolescence with him. But what about your husband?

AGUILAR: Oh, he said I married the perfect woman because he was so happy. He couldn't believe that I wanted to take in Pops, and for him it's been great. I mean they spend time together. They have lunch together. They just, it's been great. I think it's also helped our marriage because, you know, it shows that hey, I am in love with this man if I took in his father. So it's been great. And you were talking about dinner. That's an interesting point too because sometimes again, we wing it, but I remember one of the things my father-in-law had to learn was how to eat Mexican food. And so I remember one time I made some tacos and he's looking at it with his fork and knife like, OK, how I do this?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AGUILAR: So dig into or what do I do? And I finally said Pops; you just pick it up and needed to let me show you how. And so it's been a cultural thing because, you know, one of the things that I've taught him a lot about, you know, the culture, or the Latino culture; other cultures because again, he grew up in a whole different generation where, you know, there was separated the blacks and the whites, and Latinos and the whites. And so, it's been great for him. And many times he's like, you know, gosh, I learned a lot from you, Rebecca. And I said I too, too. He was in World War II so I relive a lot of the history that happened in the past; we're in the now, and that's what's wonderful about it.

MARTIN: That is interesting. That sounds - OK. But again, Katherine again, I'm just kind of - I don't want to be Debbie Downer here, but I am still thinking of the scenario where the young person wishes he or she were not there, OK? And I'm just wondering how that plays out, where you were saying that the tension often arises if the senior members, let's say the senior members of the household don't feel that the younger person is pulling his or her weight. But what about if that younger person feels that he or she is doing everything possible and isn't advancing? I'm just wondering how that played out, because I'd have to confess, I know a lot of young people in my community where, you know, housing costs - this is an area where housing costs are high, there's a lot of competition for, you know, these fellowships and internships that are highly desirable, and some of these young folks are ashamed that they're living at home at this stage of their lives and...

NEWMAN: I think that shame factor is actually declining because this is becoming so common. We have such an enormous group of people who are returning home and it's not an aberration anymore. It's almost become a normal part of the lifecycle. So people tend to feel shame when they're at odds with the currents in their generation.

I will say though, that there is tremendous frustration amongst young people today because of the way in which the economy has hammered their options. And, you know, these we're often talking about people whose families have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting them through college, only to discover that they really don't have the kinds of professional options that those degrees were supposed to put them in line for. So there is a lot of frustration and it has to do with what the - a bad hand the labor market is dealing to young people today. And if they happen to be in families where there's very little understanding of how difficult that is and where their actions are attributable by their parents only to their personal whims or personalities and no recognition of how hard that jungle is out there, then it can lead to a tremendous amount of strain.

And I studied this issue in the book in six different countries and you see real variations in the way different cultures define what's normal and what's a source of shame and frustration - just as your guests have talked about how Mexican culture defines certain things as normal that might not be regarded that way in other communities. Well, in Japan, for example, the phenomenon of the accordion family is something of a national catastrophe. It's treated that way. It is the subject of an almost hysterical outburst of criticism within the country and gnashing of teeth and defining of the younger generation as completely defectives. But in Italy, where I've studied the same thing, it doesn't excite anything like that kind of negative view. It's much more like what your guests are describing: we love having our children at home, why would they ever want to leave us? So, you know, Johnny is 35 years old and he's still living at home and his mom is doing his laundry. And her first question to me in interviews is well, why would he ever want to leave me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEWMAN: So there are tremendous variations in how cultures define what we expect of people at different generations. And some things which are defined as problems by government, for example, because you can't run a Social Security system if you don't have new generations being born and if people don't form new households, often that means they're not having children, those same frustrations that worry policymakers don't really worry ordinary people all that much. They've, you know, they've adapted as some of the people on your show have adapted and actually find it a happy situation.

MARTIN: Elizabeth, we only have a couple seconds left...

FOX: Yes.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you, since I know you have a social work background in addition to just your own common sense, what are some, what advice for people who are considering such an arrangement that you could pass on - very briefly?

FOX: We haven't touched on old age. My husband and I are in our quote, "encore phase"; we have a lot of outside activities, we're taking care of the kids. We all are aware that true old age is going to come. Policymakers should be happy about this trend and I think it's one thing in the bucket for people who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s to think about both their financial and relationship purposes for their old age.

MARTIN: Well, what is it that makes it work in your case? Is it that monthly meeting or is it just because you all are so cool?

FOX: My husband and my daughter - we had a family where we had lots of people in our house for various reasons over, you know, her whole life. So, experience.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Katherine Newman is author of the new book "The Accordion Family." It comes out today. She's also a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. We actually caught up with her in Cape Town, South Africa, where she's traveling. Elizabeth Fox is a mother of two and grandmother of two. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. That's who just had the last word. And Rebecca Aguilar has a teenage son and her 84-year-old father-in-law living with her and her husband. And she was with us from Dallas. Thank you all so much for joining us.

NEWMAN: You're welcome.

AGUILAR: Thank you.

FOX: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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