Three generations of an Asian family sit together on a couch, smiling up at a camera. Image via Anton Diaz, CC BY-NC 2.0.

With new covid cases at an all-time high, coronavirus is front and center in the minds of many Americans. The Centers for Disease Control also recently published a report that indicates that household transmission of covid is frequent between both adults and kids. With the rise in covid infection, and concern for household transmission, it is worth thinking about who lives together under one roof and why. In particular, who lives in intergenerational houses where young people might expose older adults to the virus?  And how might larger groups of people living together increase the chance of virus spread? Sociological research offers a number of ways to think about the reasons that intergenerational families live together that can inform our answers to these questions and help frame public health responses.

Pew Research center reports that a majority of young adults are living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression. Over the previous century and a half less and less young people have lived with their parents. However, research shows that intergenerational bonds are of increasing importance. Older adults live longer, increasing the length of shared life among parents and kids, and grandparents and grandchildren. Young adults, particularly in the middle-class, also need to rely on their parents’ financial support through a longer period of “transitioning to adulthood” that includes getting a college education. With a weak labor market, and many college courses online, it is no surprise that many young adults are remaining or returning home.
Although, overall, many more young adults are living with their parents, at least temporarily, there are important racial and ethnic differences in intergenerational households. White families are more likely to offer intergenerational financial support while Black and Latinx families are more likely to help family members by providing housing or help with childcare or caregiving, for instance. Immigrant families are also more likely to live in intergenerational households.

In the context of covid, living in intergenerational families can seem risky. These living arrangements can put older adults in closer proximity with young people who may be leaving home to work each day. However, overall, intergenerational residence patterns are a way that families can share resources and develop resilience in the face of limitations. For immigrant families intergenerational living arrangements can help create networks of support that ease the transition to a new country. For racial minorities living together can be a way to pool money and provide support in the face of structural barriers such as disproportionate poverty or poor health.  The widespread unemployment and disability brought on by the covid-19 pandemic makes these networks of support more crucial than ever.