Cross-Generational Family Definition Essay

Three Generation Family Households: Differences by Family Structure at Birth

Natasha V. Pilkauskasa

J Marriage Fam. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Sep 6.

Published in final edited form as:

J Marriage Fam. 2012 Oct 1; 74(5): 931–943.

Published online 2012 Sep 24.

PMCID: PMC3765068


See other articles in PMC that cite the published article.


Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (N=4,898), this study investigates how the share, correlates, transition patterns, and duration of three generation households vary by mother’s relationship status at birth. Nine percent of married mothers, 17 % of cohabiting, and 45% of single mothers live in a three generation family household at the birth of the child. Incidence over time is much higher and most common among single mother households, 60% live in a three generation family household in at least one wave. Economic need, culture, and generational needs are associated with living in a three generation household and correlates vary by mother’s relationship status. Three generation family households are short lived and transitions are frequent. Kin support through coresidence is an important source of support for families with young children and in particular families that are unwed at the birth of their child.

Keywords: Coresidence, Family Structure, Fragile Families, Grandparents, Multigenerational

Vern Bengtson (2001) in his Burgess Award Lecture to the National Council on Family Relations boldly stated: “For many Americans multigenerational bonds are becoming more important than nuclear family ties for well-being and support over the course of their lives” (Bengtson, 2001: 5). Whether more important than nuclear family ties, multigenerational ties are an essential part of the family system (Swartz, 2009) and multigenerational family households (where two or more adult generations coreside) have recently increased in prevalence (Taylor et al, 2010). This paper focuses on one type of type of multigenerational household, a three generation family household where a grandparent, parent, and child coreside. The share of children in three generation households has been increasing: In 2001, 6 % of US children lived in a three generation family household and by 2011, 8 % did (author’s calculation using CPS data).

Despite rising trends in intergenerational coresidence, research on three generation family households is relatively slim. In fact, research has shown that non-nuclear family relationships are often overlooked in family literature and that about 80% of articles on families focus on couples or parents (Fingerman & Hay, 2002). This paper seeks to add to the descriptive literature on three generation family households. As studies have found that living in a three generation household is associated with outcomes for children and families, understanding the dynamics and determinants of these complex households can inform family related research.

Bengtson argued that changes in family structure, as well as greater longevity, have led to an increased reliance on kin to perform family functions. Today, about 40% of births are to unwed mothers and about half of those births are to cohabiting couples (Ventura, 2009; Manlove, Ryan, Wildsmith & Franzetta, 2010). Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FF), this study investigates differences by family structure in one type of kin support, three generation coresidence. If Bengtson is correct, and family structure changes have led to increased reliance on kin support, we might expect to see differences in three generation coresidence by mother’s relationship status. The oversample of nonmarital births in the FF data provides a unique opportunity to study differences in three generation coresidence between fragile families (unmarried parents and their children) and married families. Specifically, this paper documents the share of families living in three generation family households by mother’s relationship status and estimates incidence in this population over time. Second, this study is the first to examine correlates of three generation family coresidence and whether they vary by mother’s relationship status. Third, this research documents patterns of transition and duration of three generation coresidence and differences by mother’s relationship status at birth.

Literature Review and Theoretical Perspectives

Recent cross sectional estimates show that about 3.8% of households include three or more generations (US Census, 2010) and that in 2010, 7.8% of children lived in a three generation family household (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). Yet cross sectional statistics do not give a sense of incidence, or how common these household arrangements are, over time. Older studies have shown that the prevalence of three generation family households is 3-4 times higher in longitudinal data than in a cross section (Beck & Beck, 1989, 1984). Although this study cannot provide national estimates of prevalence, understanding how common three generation family household living arrangements are for fragile families as compared to married couple families is especially important as fragile families are more disadvantaged both at the birth and over time. Bengtson (2001) argued that changes in family structure have led to increased reliance between generations to perform family functions. Thus we expect that fragile families are likely to need more kin support than married families as fragile families are likely to have fewer resources.

This increased reliance on kin among fragile families is in part due to variation in economic, parental, and community resources by mother’s relationship status (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). As married mothers have the most resources, it is likely they will have the lowest rates of coresidence with grandparents (Beck & Beck, 1989; Tienda & Angel, 1982; Aquilino, 1990). Single mothers usually have fewer resources and need the most support from kin (Hofferth, 1984; Angel & Tienda, 1982; Jayakody, Chatters, & Taylor, 1993), whereas cohabitors fall somewhere in between (Cherlin, 2009). Married adults have also been found to have fewer intergenerational ties, and cultural norms around marriage (i.e. independence) may in part explain this difference (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2008).

No studies have looked at correlates of three generation family households in particular, although several studies have looked at correlates of multigenerational households more broadly (Kamo, 2000; Ruggles, 2003, 2007, Choi, 2003; Cohen & Casper, 2002). This literature found that correlates fell into three broad categories: economic need, culture, and generational needs. Families with fewer economic resources (less education or lower income) may need to live in a three generation family household to combine resources and take advantage of economies of scale (Kamo, 2000; Cohen, 2002; Cohen & Casper, 2002). Cultural factors and norms may also be correlated with three generation coresidence (Hawkins & Eggebeen, 1991). Black and Hispanic families are more likely to reside with kin than White families (Angel & Tienda, 1982; Hofferth, 1984; Hogan, Hao & Parish, 1990; Pebly & Rudkin, 1999; Cohen & Casper, 2002). Families that are more familistic in orientation (e.g. Hispanics, Catholics, or those that grew up in a married family) are also more likely to coreside (Baca Zinn & Wells, 2000; Oropesa & Landale, 2004). Members of certain immigrant communities may be more likely to live in a three generation family household or if individuals have immigrated without their families, less likely. Similarly, religion may influence coresidence depending on community norms and values.

Generational needs, such as the needs of the parent generation may also influence the decision to coreside (Aquilino, 1990). Young mothers or those having their first child may be more likely to live with their own parents (Hogan, Hao & Parish, 1990; Trent & Harlan, 1994). Mothers in poor health or with a needy baby (low birth weight or disabled) may also need to coreside. Equally, the needs of the grandparent generation, such as poor physical or mental health, may also influence the decision to coreside (Choi, 2003; Cohen & Casper, 2002). Research has shown that assistance generally flows from the grandparent to the parent generation (Fingerman, Miller, Birdit, & Zarit, 2009; Grundy, 2005) thus we might expect that the needs of the parent generation to be more highly correlated with coresidence (Aquilino, 1990).

Different factors may be correlated with coresidence depending upon a mother’s relationship status as family resources, cultural meaning and norms differ for married, cohabiting and single mothers. Economic needs are likely to play a more significant role for single or cohabiting mothers than married mothers who are generally better off financially; whereas cultural factors (race, immigrant status, religion) likely play a similar role across family structures. Generational needs may play a different role depending on relationship status; for married families who are economically stable and norms of independence are stronger (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2008), we may find that grandparent needs more strongly predict coresidence, whereas among single mothers the parent’s need may be a stronger correlate.

Research on child wellbeing has shown that the stability of households plays an important role (e.g. Wu & Martinson, 1993). Yet little is known about the stability or duration of three generation family households. Research has found that three generation households are short lived, last less than two years (Beck & Beck, 1989), and transitions are common for young mothers (Oberlander, Shebl, Madger & Black, 2009). Differences in transition patterns by mother’s relationship status at the birth may also exist; married mother’s relationships are generally more stable and three generation coresidence may be longer lasting for them than for fragile families where changes in romantic relationships are common.



This article used data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FF), a study that was designed to be representative of births in cities with populations over 200,000. Births were randomly sampled in 20 US cities (in 15 states) between 1998 and 2000 with an oversample of nonmarital births (Reichman, Teitler, Garfinkel & McLanahan, 2001). Mothers and fathers were interviewed soon after the birth of the focal child and follow up interviews were conducted when the child was approximately 1, 3, 5, and 9 years old.

This study utilized the mother’s surveys as they were more complete than the father interviews and mothers were more likely to be residing with their child. The sample for the baseline survey was 4,898; 4,364 for the year 1 follow up; 4,231 for the year 3 follow up; 4,139 for the year 5 follow up, and 3,511 for the year 9 follow up. The response rate for the 1-year mother’s survey was 90%, 88% for the 3-year follow up, 87% for the 5-year follow up, and 76% for the 9-year follow up. Analyses of transitions and duration (Table 4) were restricted to mothers who were interviewed in all 5 survey waves, a sample of 2,986.

Table 4

Incidence Over Time, Patterns of Transition, and Duration of Three Generation Family Households by Mother’s Relationship Status (N=2986)

Analyses of attrition showed that mothers who attrited were more disadvantaged than those who remained in the sample. Attriters were less educated, had lower income to needs ratios, and were more likely to be immigrants and Hispanic. To deal with the attrition, the data were multiple imputed (Allison, 2002; Rubin, 1976). Multiple imputation uses the observed data to impute values for individuals who have missing data. Five data sets were imputed (using the ice command in STATA 12) and the estimates were averaged over these data. The descriptive results were virtually identical in the observed and imputed analyses (rates of transition were about 1/2 a percentage point higher in the imputed data). To take a more conservative approach and not utilize the data that imputed the outcome of interest (three generation family household status), the unimputed results for the descriptive tables (Tables 1 and ​4) are reported. In the multivariate analyses (Table 2 that describes the sample and Table 3 the regression results), the imputed data were utilized to retain respondents who had missing data on covariates. Analyses were run using listwise deletion as well and the results were substantively similar.

Table 1

Percent of Three Generation Family Households by Age of the Child and by Mother's Relationship Status

Table 2

Sample Characteristics by Three Generation Household and Mother’s Relationship Status at the Birth of the Child (N=4,898)

Table 3

Correlates of Living in a Three Generation Family Household at the Birth of the Child - Logistic Regressions (N=4898)


Three Generation Family Structure

At each survey wave a measure of three generation family structure was constructed as a dummy variable set to one if a grandfather, a grandmother, or both were listed in the household roster.

Mother’s Relationship Status

Relationship status was constructed based on mother’s relationship status at the birth of the child. Mothers were coded as married, cohabiting with the baby’s father, or single. Single mothers may have been in a romantic relationship with the baby’s father (or another partner) but were not coresident. Unlike three generation family structure, this variable does not change over time; it is a measure of the relationship status at the birth. Using relationship status at birth allowed for an investigation of differences in the reliance on kin networks between fragile families and married families over time. Both cohabiting and single mothers are considered fragile families because they were unwed at the birth of the child.

Economic Need

Two measures of economic need were included in the analyses: mother’s education and grandmother’s education. Education was specified as less than high school, high school (reference), some college, and a bachelor’s degree or higher. Education was used instead of family income because income is likely to be endogenous (affected by three generation status).


Cultural factors include race, immigrant status, mother’s family background and religion. Race or ethnicity was coded as a series of dummy variables for non-Hispanic White (reference category), non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and other non-Hispanic race. Dichotomous variables indicating whether the mother is an immigrant and whether either grandparent is an immigrant were included. A dichotomous measure indicating whether the mother lived with both her parents at age 15 was used as a measure of family background. Religion was coded into four categories: Protestant, Catholic, other, and no religion (reference).

Generational Need

The needs of the parent generation were captured with several variables. Mother’s age, entered as a set of dummies (14-17, 18-19, 20-24, 25-35, and 35+ − reference), a dummy variable indicating whether she was having her first child, and a dummy variable indicating whether the baby was low birth weight (<2500 grams). Grandparent’s needs were captured using a measure of whether the grandparent had a drug or alcohol problem and whether the grandparent had depression when the mother was growing up.

Transition Patterns

In order to determine complete patterns of transition, this variable was restricted to respondents who were present in all survey waves (N=2,986). Patterns of transition coded respondents into 6 categories: (a) always three generation (in a three generation family household at baseline, years - 1,- 3, - 5, and - 9), (b) never three generation, (c) start in a three generation household and transition out (regardless of when the transition actually occurred), (d) start out of a three generation household and transition in, (e) two transitions in or out of a three generation family household (regardless of starting position), and (f) three or four transitions into or out of a three generation family household. Distinguishing the number of transitions captures stability. For families with a single transition (codes c and d), distinguishing the starting point (coresident or not) highlights differences between families who needed some help at the birth of the child and moved out, versus those who moved in later, likely as a result of some crisis.


In order to assess the duration of three generation family households (from baseline to year 9) respondents were coded as coresident one wave only, two nonconsecutive waves, two consecutive waves, three nonconsecutive waves, three consecutive waves, four nonconsecutive waves, four consecutive waves, and five consecutive waves.

Analytic Strategy

This study is descriptive in nature and utilizes bivariate (weighted and unweighted) statistics to document the share of families in a three generation family household and differences by mother’s relationship status at the birth of the child. In order to investigate correlates of three generation family coresidence at the birth of a child, a multivariate analysis was conducted utilizing logistic regression. Equation (1) shows the regression model:

Yi = β0 + β1Economici + β2Culturali + β3Generational Needsi + εi


where Yi is the outcome of interest – living in a three generation family household at the birth of the child, and Economic, Cultural, and Generational Needs are characteristics that may be associated with living in a three generation family household. These analyses were repeated stratifying the sample by mother’s relationship status at the birth of the focal child to investigate whether the correlates of three generation coresidence varied by relationship status. Lastly, the analyses of patterns of transition and duration utilized bivariate descriptive statistics.

The FF data collection started at the birth of the child; living arrangements of families prior to the birth were not observed, therefore the independent variables were restricted to characteristics that are generally unchanging, or predate the birth to avoid issues of reverse causality. This approach has its limitations, chiefly that many of the potential covariates that might be correlated moving into a three generation family household are measured at the same time as the household structure and are therefore endogenous to the outcome of interest (like household income or employment) and are excluded from these analyses.


Share and Correlates

Table 1 shows the percent of respondents who lived in a three generation family household by the age of the child. Both the unweighted and weighted percentages are reported for the overall share of three generation families. Similar to other studies, three generation coresidence was most common when children were very young (Bryson & Casper, 1999; Pebly & Rudkin, 1999; Mutchler & Baker, 2004). Nearly 26% of respondents lived with at least one grandparent at the birth of the focal child and by year 9 this had decreased to 11%. The weighted results take into account the oversample of nonmarital births to make the data nationally representative of births in large US cities. Even after weighting, nearly 18% of respondents lived in a three generation family household at the birth of the child, suggesting many urban families rely on grandparent support at the time of the birth of a new child.

As anticipated, the frequency of living in a three-generation household varied greatly by the relationship status of the mother. Among mothers who were married at the birth, 9% lived in a three generation family household at the birth of the child; this share decreased over time to about 7%. Interestingly, the share of married mothers living in a three generation family household increased between age 5 and 9 by about 1 percentage point. The year 9 data were collected from 2007-2010 and coincided with the Great Recession. The increase among married mothers may reflect increased doubling up due to the economic crisis. Among cohabiting mothers, the share that lived in a three generation family household at the birth of the child was nearly double (17%) that of married mothers, and by age 9, it was still higher than for married mothers at nearly 10%. Lastly, as expected, a much higher share – 45% – of single mothers lived in a three generation family household at the birth of the focal child but this dropped to about 15% by age 9. These findings suggest that among mothers who were married at the birth, their reliance on kin was somewhat stable over time, whereas for fragile families, kin support was particularly important when they had a very young child.

Table 2 reports the sample characteristics at the birth of the child. Similar to prior literature, economic, cultural, and generational needs differed for individuals in three generation family households and those who were not. Mothers and grandmothers in three generation family households had lower levels of education than those not in three generation family households. Cultural factors also differed; mothers in three generation family households were less likely to be White, more likely to be Black, and less likely to have lived with both parents at age 15. Lastly, in terms of generational needs, mothers in three generation family households were significantly younger and more likely to have had a first birth than other mothers. Grandparents in three generation family households were less likely to have been depressed than those not in a three generation family household. Coresident mothers were also more likely to be single and less likely to be married.

Once the sample was divided by mother’s relationship status, some differences emerged. In fact, the only characteristic that was statistically different between mothers in three generation family households versus those who are not across all relationship statuses was mothers’ age; mothers who resided in a three generation family household were younger than those who did not. To more fully investigate what characteristics were associated with three generation family households and how these differed by mother’s relationship status, Table 3 reports the results of logistic regressions predicting three generation coresidence at the birth of the child by mother’s relationship status.

Table 3 reports the B, the standard error on B, and the odds ratio for logistic regressions predicting three generation family coresidence. Discussion is focused on the odds ratios that indicate whether a particular characteristic is associated with a greater or lesser likelihood of living in a particular type of household as compared to the reference category. To test whether differences by relationship status were significantly different from each other, Chow tests were conducted on the fully interacted models comparing each group (married versus single, married versus cohabiting, cohabiting versus single) and significant differences are noted in Table 3.

In the full sample, economic needs of the mother predicted coresidence (mother’s lower education is marginally associated with increased odds and higher education is significantly associated with decreased odds), but grandmother’s education did not. Several cultural correlates were associated with three generation family households. As has been found in studies of multigenerational households generally, mothers who were Black, Hispanic, or other race or ethnicity were all significantly more likely to reside in a three generation family household than Whites. Mothers who lived with both parents at age 15 were more likely to coreside whereas immigrants were less likely than their peers. In terms of generational needs, the needs of the parent generation mattered, whereas those of the grandparent generation did not: younger mothers (especially teen mothers) were more likely to live in a three generation family household whereas older (25-34) ones were less likely. Mothers who had a first birth were two times as likely to coreside. In comparison with married mothers, single mothers were 4.7 times as likely to have lived in a three generation family household.

Stratifying the sample by mother’s relationship status revealed a few different patterns. As predicted, among married mothers, economic need did not play a very significant role in determining coresidence. In comparison, among cohabiting mothers, economic factors played a significant role in predicting coresidence; cohabiting mothers with less than a high school education were 68% more likely to live in a three generation family household than those with a high school education. Counter to expectation, economic factors did not play a role among single mothers. It may be that the economic factors investigated here only capture one part of economic need and other factors not available in these data are predictive of coresidence.

Differences in cultural correlates by mother’s relationship status were not expected, yet some differences emerged. Interestingly, race or ethnicity was not associated with coresidence for any of the groups except for mothers who were “other” race once the analyses were stratified but differences between relationship groups were not significant. Among married mothers, those who had parents (grandparents) who were immigrants were 2 times as likely to live in a three generation family household, yet this was not associated with coresidence for cohabiting mothers. For single mothers being an immigrant was negatively associated with three generation coresidence.

Generational needs of the parent generation were predictive of coresidence, but not those of the grandparent generation (this may be in part due to a lack of sufficient measures of grandparent needs). Older mothers who were cohabiting or single were less likely to live in a three generation family household whereas this was not the case for married mothers. Across relationship categories mothers who were having a first birth were all more likely to live in a three generation family household but differences in the magnitude varied by mother’s relationship status: Single mothers who were having a first birth were two and a half times as likely to coreside, cohabiting mothers 58% more likely, and married mothers only 11% more likely. Thus, it appears that the needs of the parent generation predict coresidence more strongly than the needs of the grandparent generation.

Patterns of Transition and Duration

To fully understand the complexity of three generation family households and the use of kin support among fragile as compared to married families it is important to look at incidence over time, transition patterns, and duration. Figure 1 illustrates the patterns of transitions into, and out of, three generation family households. Mothers were plotted as three generation (left) or not (right) at baseline and their transitions were plotted over time (moving down). In order to provide complete information on transitions, the sample was restricted to only mothers who were interviewed in all five survey waves. The widths of the lines connecting the transitions were drawn to approximately represent their relative sample sizes.

Figure. 1

Flow Chart of Mothers in a Three Generation Family Household over 5 Survey Waves (N=2986)

Figure 1 demonstrates the fluidity of three generation household arrangements and the volume of transitions into and out of three generation family households among this population. Strikingly, nearly 43% of this sample (and 40% of the total sample) lived in a three generation family household in at least one of the 5 survey waves. Although 26% of respondents coresided with a grandparent at the birth of the child and this percentage decreased over time, in fact many more families relied on kin for support at some point in time.

Figure 1 plots the transitions for all mothers regardless of relationship status; Table 4 displays patterns of transition by mother’s relationship status. Panel A of Table 4 shows the percentage of mothers who ever reported living in a three generation family household by mother’s relationship status. Again, the sample was restricted to those who were interviewed in all waves of the survey. Sixty-percent of mothers who were single at the birth coresided with a grandparent in at least one wave, 38% of cohabiting mothers, and only 22% of married mothers. Kin support was important across family types and was most important for fragile families.

Panel B of Table 4 documents patterns of transition by relationship status. Very few mothers lived in a three generation family household consistently over the 5 survey waves (1.8%) and single mothers were by far the most likely to do so (3%). Starting out in a three generation family household and then leaving that household was the most common pattern observed in these data. This pattern corresponds to the idea that early on in a child’s life, families may require additional assistance from kin, but they later move out of the three generation family household and remain outside of the household. Single mothers were by far the most likely to follow this pattern (31%) and 12% of cohabiters did the same, but only 5% of married mothers. Starting outside of a three generation household and then moving into one implies a different mechanism. Mothers who moved in may have experienced a shock of some sort that led them to move in with kin. Thus, we did not expect to see differences in this pattern across mother’s relationship status and this was the case with 4-5% following this pattern. Eighteen percent of the sample made two or more transitions into (or out of) a three generation family household. Fragile families were expected to make the most transitions as their relationship statuses are more likely to change over time and as their financial situation may be more precarious than married mothers, and this was the case. Eleven percent of married mothers made two or more transitions into or out of a three generation family household, whereas 20% of cohabiting or single mothers did the same. Single mothers had the most transitions with 7% of the sample making 3 or 4 transitions.

Panel C of Table 4 reports the number of consecutive (and not consecutive) waves of coresidence to estimate the duration of three generation households. Among mothers who ever reported living in a three generation family household, 45% only reported doing so in one survey wave. Again there were differences by mother’s relationship status but not necessarily as expected. Single mothers were the least likely to coreside only for one wave, whereas 59% of married mothers only coresided one wave. In terms of the number of consecutive waves of coresidence, none of the differences by relationship status were statistically significant although single mothers overall were more likely to reside in a three generation family household consecutively.


Bengtson argued that multigenerational bonds are becoming more important for the wellbeing of families and as a source of support. The findings of this study certainly support the assertion that multigenerational support is widespread. Close to half (43%) of families in the study lived in a three generation family household in at least one survey wave and this finding likely underestimates the true incidence among this population as there were long intervals between survey waves. Fragile families (unmarried parents and their children) were most likely to rely on coresidence with kin both at the birth and over time. Sixty-percent of single mothers in the study lived in a three generation family household at least once over the first 9 years of the focal child’s life. The need for intergenerational support also appears to be higher when children are younger. At the birth of the child 26% of the sample resided in a three generation family household (18% of the weighted sample) and only 11% did likewise at age 9. Together, these statistics suggest that urban families and fragile families in particular, rely a great deal on intergenerational support through coresidence.

Mother’s relationship status was associated with three generation family coresidence. Moreover, the factors correlated with coresidence varied by mother’s relationship status. Economic factors were not correlated with coresidence among single mothers but were associated with coresidence for cohabiting mothers. Cultural factors associated with coresidence also varied by mother’s relationship status. As anticipated, race or ethnicity was correlated with coresidence similarly across relationship groups, but for single mothers being an immigrant herself was associated with decreased odds.

Regardless of mother’s relationship status, the needs of the parent generation appeared to be more strongly associated with coresidence than the needs of the grandparent generation (although that may in part be due to incomplete information on potential needs – such as the health of the grandparent generation). Mothers who were younger were more likely to coreside with a grandparent, and across all relationship statuses, mothers who had a first birth were more likely to coreside although single mothers with a first birth were the most likely.

Lastly, this study investigated the patterns of transition and duration of three generation family households. Families transitioned into and out of three generation family households very often (18% transition two or more times) and transitions were more common among fragile families. Three generation family households were generally short-lived. Among the families who lived in a three generation family household, nearly half did so only at one survey wave. Although the tenure of three generation households was short, given the frequency of their occurrence, and their likelihood of reoccurrence, these households likely play an important role in the lives of children, mothers, and grandparents. Other research has documented the importance of returning home for adult children, in particular middle class children (Newman, 2012), but these findings suggest that families also provide an important safety net for adult children with kids, and among the economically disadvantaged as well. As Bengtson suggested, multigenerational support is important.

This study has several limitations. First, the sample while focused on urban, primarily low income mothers, a population that is very likely to live in a three generation family household, is not nationally representative. Future studies should utilize nationally representative data to see if these differences between fragile families and married families hold. Second, although the analyses of the correlates of three generation family coresidence are suggestive, FF data have only limited information on the families prior to coresidence. Future research that looks at predictors of three generation families would ideally have more information on families prior to coresidence and additional variables that capture economic and generational needs (in particular grandparent needs such as physical health). Lastly, the data were collected periodically and cannot capture three generation family coresidence between waves; therefore it is likely that the percentages presented here are underestimates.

Despite these limitations, the findings from this study are suggestive for future research and policy making. Many families today, especially when they have a very young child, live in a three generation family household and rely on kin support throughout early childhood. Three generation family households appear to be very transitory and research on nuclear family transitions suggests that instability is not good for children, but this may not be the case at the multigenerational family level. Future research should consider transitions not only at the nuclear family level but also at the three generation family level. Moving in with grandparents may provide stability (economically or emotionally) in times of crisis or perhaps, as is the case with nuclear family transitions, these disruptions are detrimental to child development. Policies are often targeted at the household level and recognizing the complexity of households is important.

This study is the first to investigate correlates of living in a three generation family household and patterns of transitions and duration of these households. It is also the first to examine differences in three generation family households by mother’s relationship status comparing fragile families to married families. This study sheds light on the complexity of this increasingly common household arrangement, one that is likely to become more important in years to come, as the population ages and as out of wedlock birth rates remain steady or rise.


The author thanks the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for support through Award R24HD058486. The author also thanks Jane Waldfogel for her thoughtful feedback on drafts of this article, Lenna Nepomnyaschy for inspiring the graph, and Marty Moore for design assistance.


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An extended family is a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, consisting of parents like father, mother, and their children, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all living nearby or in the same household. An example is a married couple that lives with either the husband or the wife's parents. The family changes from immediate household to extended household.

In some circumstances, the extended family comes to live either with or in place of a member of the immediate family. These families include, in one household, near relatives in addition to an immediate family. An example would be an elderly parent who moves in with his or her children due to old age. In modern Western cultures dominated by immediate family constructs, the term has come to be used generically to refer to grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, whether they live together within the same household or not.[1] However, it may also refer to a family unit in which several generations live together within a single household. In some cultures, the term is used synonymously with consanguineous family.

In a stem family, a type of extended family, first presented by Frédéric Le Play, parents will live with one child and his or her spouse, as well as the children of both, while other children will leave the house or remain in it unmarried. The stem family is sometimes associated with inegalitarian inheritance practices, as in Japan and Korea, but the term has also been used in some contexts to describe a family type where parents live with a married child and his or her spouse and children, but the transfer of land and moveable property is more or less egalitarian, as in the case of traditional Romania,[2] northeastern Thailand[3] or Mesoamerican indigenous peoples.[4] In these cases, the child who cares for the parents usually receives the house in addition to his or her own share of land and moveable property.

In an extended family, parents and their children's families may often live under a single roof. This type of joint family often includes multiple generations in the family. From culture to culture, the variance of the term may have different meanings. For instance, in India, the family is a patriarchal society, with the sons' families often staying in the same house.

In the joint family, the workload is shared among the members. The patriarch of the family (often the oldest male member) is the head of the household. Grandparents are usually involved in the raising process of the children along with guidance and education. Like any family unit the success and structure are dependent on the personalities of the individuals involved.

Amy Goyer, AARP multigenerational issues expert, said the most common multigenerational household is one with a grandparent as head of household and his adult children having moved in with their children, an arrangement usually spurred by the needs of one or both to combine resources and save money. The second most popular is a grandparent moving in with an adult child's family, usually for care-giving reasons. She noted that 2.5 million grandparents say they are responsible for the basic needs of the grandchild living with them.[5][clarification needed]

The house often has a large reception area and a common kitchen. Each family has their own bedroom.[citation needed] The members of the household also look after each other when a member is ill.


It has often been presumed that extended family groups sharing a single household enjoy certain advantages, such as a greater sense of security and belonging due to sharing a wider pool of members to serve as resources during a crisis, and more role models to help perpetuate desired behavior and cultural values. However, even in cultures in which adults are expected to leave home after marriage to begin their own nuclear-based households, the extended family often forms an important support network offering similar advantages. Particularly in working-class communities, grown children tend to establish their own households within the same general area as their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. These extended family members tend to gather often for family events and to feel responsible for helping and supporting one another, both emotionally and financially.[6]

While contemporary families may be considered more mobile in general than in the past, sociologists find that this has not necessarily resulted in the disintegration of extended family networks. Rather, technological aids such as the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook are now commonly used[where?] to retain contact and maintain these family ties.[6]

Particularly in the case of single-parent households, it can be helpful for extended family members to share a single household in order to share the burden of meeting expenses. On the other hand, sharing a household can present a disadvantage depending on the sizes and number of families involved, particularly when only a few members shoulder most of the responsibility to meet expenses for the family's basic needs.[7]

An estimated 49 million Americans (16.1% of the total population) live in homes comprising three or more generations, up from 42 million in 2000. This situation is similar in Western Europe. Another 34 percent live within a kilometer of their children.[8][9]

Around the world[edit]

In many cultures, such as in those of many of the Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europe, indigenous Latin Americans and Pacific Islanders, extended families are the basic family unit. Even in Western Europe, extended families (mostly of the stem type) were also clearly prevalent, England being a rare exception.[10] Some[who?] have stated that the relative "uniqueness" of the traditional English family (the absolute nuclear family) was at least partly responsible for the birth of industrialization, free-market capitalism and liberalism in that country.

It is common for today's world to have older children in nuclear families to reach walking up to driving age ranges before meeting extended family members. Geographical isolation is common for middle-class families who move based on occupational opportunities while family branches "retain [their] basic independence".[11] Some extended families hold family reunions or opportunities for gathering regularly, normally around holiday time frames, to reestablish and integrate a stronger family connection. This allows individual nuclear families to connect with extended family members.

Australian Aborigines are another group for whom the concept of family extends well beyond the nuclear model. Aboriginal immediate families include aunts, uncles and a number of other relatives who would be considered "distant relations" in the context of the nuclear family. Aboriginal families have strict social rules regarding whom they can marry. Their family structure incorporates a shared responsibility for all tasks.[citation needed]

Where families consist of multiple generations living together, the family is usually headed by the oldest man. More often than not, it consists of grandparents, their sons and their sons' families.Extend families make discussions together and solve a problem.

South Asia[edit]

Main article: Hindu joint family

Historically, for generations South Asia had a prevailing tradition of the joint family system or undivided family. Joint family system is an extended family arrangement prevalent throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, consisting of many generations living in the same home, all bound by the common relationship.[12] A patrilineal joint family consists of an older man and his wife, his sons and unmarried daughters, his sons’ wives and children. The family is headed by a patriarch, usually the oldest male, who makes decisions on economic and social matters on behalf of the entire family. The patriarch's wife generally exerts control over the household, minor religious practices and often wields considerable influence in domestic matters. Family income flows into a common pool, from which resources are drawn to meet the needs of all members, which are regulated by the heads of the family.[13] However, with urbanisation and economic development, India has witnessed a break up of traditional joint family into more nuclear-like families and the traditional joint family in India accounted for a small percent of Indian households.[14][15]

Recent trend in the United States[edit]

See also: American family structure

In the early stages of the twentieth century, it was not very common to find many families with extended kin in their household, which may have been due to the idea that the young people in these times typically waited to establish themselves and start a household before they married and filled a home.[citation needed] As life expectancy becomes older and programs such as Social Security benefit the elderly, the old are now beginning to live longer than prior generations, which then may lead to generations mixing together.[16] According to results of a study by Pew Research Center in 2010, approximately 50 million (nearly one in six) Americans, including rising numbers of seniors, live in households with at least two adult generations, and often three. It has become an ongoing trend for elderly generations to move in and live with their children, as they can give them support and help with everyday living. The main reasons cited for this shift are an increase in unemployment and slumped housing prices and arrival of new immigrants from Asian and South American countries.[17] In 2003, the number of U.S. "family groups" where one or more subfamilies live in a household (e.g. a householder's daughter has a child. The mother-child is a subfamily) was 79 million. Two-point-six million of U.S. multigenerational family households in 2000 had a householder, the householder's children, and the householder's grandchildren. That's 65 percent of multigenerational family households in the U.S. So it is twice as common for a grandparent to be the householder than for adult children to bring parents into their home.[18] The increase in the number of multigenerational households has created complex legal issues, such as who in the household has authority to consent to police searches of the family home or private bedrooms.[19]


Mexican society is broken up into a three generational units consisting of grandparents, children and grandchildren. Further close relationships are maintained with the progenitors of these families and are known as kin or "cousins" When one is born they are born into two extended families, a kinship group of sometimes 70 people. The group traditionally acts as a cohesive unit pooling resources and influence. The extended family also consists of spouses and siblings. This is in contrast to the two generational American nuclear family.[20]

Some scholars have used the term "grand-family" to describe the close relationship between grandparents, children, and grandchildren in Mexican society.[21][22] Larissa A. Lomnitz and Marisol Perez-Lizaur, for example, describe the grand-family as "the basic unit of family solidarity in Mexico", where basic family obligations between grandparents, children, and grandchildren include "economic support, participation in family rituals, and social recognition".[21] Katie Willis and Cathy Mcilwaine also note that grand-families are a "distinctive feature" of "low-income", "middle-income", as well as "elite sectors" of Mexican society.[23]

Economic background[edit]

Economic background has become a very prominent factor in the likelihood of living in an extended family. Many families[where?] who live in low-income areas are beginning[when?] to move in with one another for financial and emotional support. The relative economic deprivation of racial and ethnic minorities leads to higher levels of extended family involvement; primarily because blacks and Latinos have less money and education than whites, they are more likely to give and receive help from kin.[24] Having family on which one can rely is very important in times of economic hardship especially if there are children involved. Living in an extended family provides constant care for children and support for other members of the family as well. Analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households[clarification needed] suggests there are differences between whites and other ethnic groups because of economic differences among racial groups: blacks and Latinos less often have the economic resources that allow the kind of privatization that the nuclear family entails. Extended kinship, then, is a survival strategy in the face of economic difficulties.[25] Being able to rely on not only two parents but grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters helps to create a support system which in turn brings families closer together. Living in an extended family provides many things that a nuclear family does not.

The number of multigenerational households has been steadily rising because of the economic hardships people are experiencing today.[when?] According to the AARP, multigenerational households have increased from 5 million in 2000 to 6.2 million in 2008.[26]"There's no question that with some ethnicities that are growing in America, it is more mainstream and traditional to have multigenerational households. We're going to see that increasing in the general population as well," says AARP's Ginzler.[26] While high unemployment and housing foreclosures of the recession have played a key role in the trend, Pew Research Center exec VP and co-author of its multigenerational household study Paul Taylor said it has been growing over several decades, fueled by demographic and cultural shifts such as the rising number of immigrants and the rising average age of young-adult marriages.[27] The importance of an extended family is one that many people may not realize, but having a support system and many forms of income may help people today because of the difficulties in finding a job and bringing in enough money.[clarification needed]

Complex family[edit]

"Complex family" is a generic term for any family structure involving more than two adults. The term can refer to any extended family, polyamorous or to a polygamy of any type. It is often used to refer to the group marriage form of polygamy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Andersen, Margaret L and Taylor, Howard Francis (2007). The extended family may live together for many reasons, such as to help raise children, support for an ill relative, or help with financial problems. Sociology: Understanding a diverse society. p. 396 ISBN 0-495-00742-0.
  2. ^Gender and Well-Being Interactions between Work, Family and Public Policies COST ACTION A 34 Second Symposium: The Transmission of Well-Being: Marriage Strategies and Inheritance Systems in Europe (17th-20th Centuries) 25th -28th April 2007 University of Minho Guimarães-Portugal
  3. ^David I. Kertzer; Thomas Earl Fricke (15 July 1997). Anthropological Demography: Toward a New Synthesis. University of Chicago Press. pp. 62–. ISBN 978-0-226-43195-6. 
  4. ^Robichaux, David Luke (1 January 1997). "Residence Rules and Ultimogeniture in Tlaxcala and Mesoamerica". Ethnology. 36 (2): 149–171. doi:10.2307/3774080. JSTOR 3774080. 
  5. ^Bulik, B. (2010). We Are Family-And More Of Us Are Living Under One Roof. (Cover story). Advertising Age, 81(30), 1-20.
  6. ^ abBrowne, Ken (2011). Introduction to Sociology. p. 107 ISBN 0-7456-5008-2.
  7. ^Pillitteri, Adele (2009). Maternal and Child Health Nursing: Care of the Childbearing and Childrearing Family. p. 42 ISBN 1-58255-999-6.
  8. ^"The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household | Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project". 2010-03-18. Retrieved August 8, 2014. 
  9. ^It is also said that in an extended family grandfathers and grandmothers take care of the children staying home,mother works in the kitchen and father does the financial work
  10. ^Family Types and the Persistence of Regional Disparities in Europe
  11. ^Meyerhoff, Michael. Discovery Fit and Health. Understanding Family Structure and Dynamics: The Extended Family. Discovery Communications, LLC. 2012. Web. [1]
  12. ^Talwar, Swati. "Meaning of HUF (Hindu Undivided Family)". Retrieved June 29, 2014. 
  13. ^Henry Orenstein and Michael Micklin. "The Hindu Joint Family: The Norms and the Numbers". Pacific Affairs. 39 (3/4): 314–325. JSTOR 2754275.  
  14. ^Raghuvir Sinha (1993). Dynamics of Change in the Modern Hindu Family. South Asia Books. ISBN 978-81-7022-448-8. 
  15. ^"Indian Families". Facts About India. Archived from the original on 30 July 2011. Retrieved 11 October 2011. 
  16. ^Cherlin, Andrew J. (2010). Public and Private families. McGraw Hill. 
  17. ^Surge in Multigenerational Households, U.S. News (March 21, 2010).
  18. ^Bronson, Po. Multiple Generation/Extended Family Households. The Factbook: eye-opening memos on everything family. 2000 [2]
  19. ^When is a Parent's Authority Apparent? Reconsidering Third Party Consent Searches of an Adult Child's Private Bedroom and Property, Criminal Justice, Vol. 24, pp. 34–37, Winter 2010.
  20. ^The Family on the Threshold of the 21st Century: Trends and Implications By Solly Dreman
  21. ^ abLomnitz, Larissa A.; Perez-Lizaur, Marisol (2003). "Dynastic Growth and Survival Strategies: The Solidarity of Mexican Grand Families". In Cheal, David. Family: Critical Concepts in Sociology. Psychology Press. p. 377. ISBN 0415226325. Retrieved March 13, 2016. 
  22. ^Jelin, Elizabeth (1991). Family, Household and Gender Relations in Latin America. Kegan Paul International. ISBN 9231026577. 
  23. ^Willis, Katie; Mcilwaine, Cathy (2014). Challenges and Change in Middle America: Perspectives on Development in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Routledge. ISBN 1317876881. 
  24. ^Gerstel, N (2011). "Rethinking Families and Community: The Color, Class, and Centrality of Extended Kin Ties". Sociological Forum. 26 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1111/j.1573-7861.2010.01222.x. 
  25. ^Gerstel, N. (2011). Rethinking Families and Community: The Color, Class, and Centrality of Extended Kin Ties. Sociological Forum, 26(1), 1-20. doi:10.1111/ j.1573-7861.2010.01222.x
  26. ^ abMetcalf, E. R. (2010). "The Family That Stays Together". Saturday Evening Post. 282 (1): 39. 
  27. ^Bulik, B (2010). "We Are Family-And More Of Us Are Living Under One Roof. (Cover story)". Advertising Age. 81 (30): 1–20. 


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