American households and leaving the nest

My name is Maria. I’m part of the staff, and I'm currently based in Quito. Ecuador is a delightful little country, but there are definitely some cultural differences that have me scratching my head from time to time.

Many young, single, upwardly mobile Ecuadoreans with college degrees and well-paying jobs opt to live with their families rent-free into their late 20’s and beyond. As an American, this seems more than unfathomable to me. My whole life up to 18 was waiting for that majestic day when I could break free from the shackles of my comfortable suburban home and become a yuppie (young urban poor person). I’ve lived in the crappiest apartments, in the shadiest parts of town, with the sketchiest room mates, all of which was a thousand times more awesome than the idea of moving back in with my parents.

Here though, many of my Master’s-degree-wielding, espresso-drinking, independent-film-watching compatriots leave work at 5 so they can make it home in time for the traditional family sit down dinner. There was a time in our history, and not so long ago, when leaving the nest was reserved for quite few occasions: manifest destiny and death. The average American household in 1900 contained 4.6 people, and probably reflected a multi-generational makeup: children, parents, whatever grandparents were still around, and maybe a stray cousin or two. Since 1900, the landscape of American households has (unsurprisingly) changed significantly, with Census survey data documenting the shrinking of the American home.

So what’s the cause of this ever-decreasing household size? I blame the media, but other likely sources probably include things like: an increasing proportion of American youth moving away to go to college, the greater social acceptability of grandparents living alone or in assisted living facilities, and the pretty widely accepted notion that living with your parents at any point past 25 makes you, well, kind of a bum. Ultimately, modern American families are not bound together by economic necessity as in times past. In the past hundred years, children have gone from an asset (go plow the fields!) to a liability (tuition is how much!?). Care for the elderly can be outsourced from the family home because of things like improved government services, higher disposable incomes, and 401k’s.

Glancing back at the chart, it’s not news that the population has steadily increased since 1900 (and correspondingly, the number of households), and that the average household size has decreased, but what is intriguing is that this trend may be coming to a halt, and even slowly reversing. Comparing percent changes in the average household size yields an interesting result.

From 1910 to 2000, the average household size decreased about 5% per decade, resulting in a cumulative 46% decrease in household size from 4.6 to 2.6. In 2010, it showed no change from 2000, and may have even increased slightly. Where does that leave us now?

This post-recession fallout may likely have negative implications for our economic recovery in terms of reduced housing demand, but culturally and socially, its unclear what consequences may result. Will an increase in multi-generational households strengthen the America’s nuclear family ideal and reinforce traditional values? Will young adults leaving the nest later result in the protracted financial independence of generation Y? Is it weird to have to share a bathroom with grandma? If Ecuador is any indicator of things to come: yes, no, and probably.

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