When North America began its experiment with suburban living, we lost touch with who we were as interdependent human beings. The structure of the suburbs divided us in so many ways, including old from young and very young.
If our country returns to multigenerational living like the rest of the world and human history, we can leave our cult of independence. We can return to the togetherness and support that everyone needs, even those have become numb to it. Shina Shayesteh tells her found-family’s story.
Multigenerational Living Isn’t Immigrant Culture, It’s Human Culture
By Shina Shayesteh
When I was learning Russian, I had a professor who once asked us to relate a time (in Russian, of course) when we took a vacation with just our dads. A weird prompt, right? I certainly thought so. At least, until my other classmates started telling stories about going on fishing trips and whatnot with their fathers, and I was left wondering if I was the crazy one.
When it was my turn, I ended up blurting out (with a measure of panic, as this professor was, frankly, a real hardass sometimes), “I don’t know. I’ve never taken a trip with just my dad; my family’s always together.”
Without missing a beat, the prof looked me in the eye and, instead of reading me the riot act like I was expecting, he said softly, “Because you are immigrants.” And he left it at that. He didn’t press me further.
Those four words struck at something in me; to this day, I have trouble recalling them without getting choked up. I’ve had a lot of time since then to think about that moment and about what it means to live in an immigrant family. Were we defined by our loss, by the trauma of being uprooted? Had that made us magically closer than the average American family?
No, of course not. My family has as many interpersonal problems as the next one, and I’ve got relatives whom I don’t even like very much. We don’t enjoy some special, stronger bond just because we’re immigrants. It is true, though, that we’ve tended to stick together—and in fact, I spent the majority of my upbringing living with extended relatives, along with my nuclear family.
Usually this was my paternal grandmother (who’d left Iran with nothing to her name), but there were times when my adult half-brother also lived with us, as well as the occasional cousin. On top of that, I moved back in with my parents at one point in adulthood myself, while doing my MA and struggling financially. At that time, my younger brother, older half-sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and grandmother all also lived with us.
In other words, it was five generations of nine people, all in one household.
I had dreaded the prospect of going back home. I’d spent the latter part of my undergrad career working two jobs while going to school full time, and I considered this a positive sign of my adultness. I could only budget $20 a week for groceries, but I had come to believe that was preferable to moving back in with my folks. …Or had I? In truth, when I actually did go back home, it felt natural; I slipped into the routine of living with my family as if I’d never left them. It was only when talking about it with my American friends that I felt embarrassed and awkward.
It wasn’t as though it was easy to have nine people living under one roof. It got stressful, and all of us had arguments at some point. The kids were loud, and a few of the adults among us had personalities that were difficult to deal with, to put it nicely.
In the long run, though, the fact that we were able to stay together benefitted us. I made it through grad school with minimal debt, and my half-sister had a family to help her while raising two young children and studying for an MD. My brother, meanwhile, was afforded a space in which he could get back onto his feet, after going through some tough years.
It’s not just about the cost of rent: when you live communally, everyone can contribute to the household bills, groceries, chores, and can lend a hand in emergency situations. For people who live solo, the burden of all these stressors rests on their shoulders alone.
There were plenty of less tangible benefits to our living arrangement, as well. When I look back, I realize just how depressed I’d felt as an undergrad, particularly when I had stopped living with a roommate and was on my own. By contrast, my graduate years were some of the happiest of my life. A lot of factors went into this (I suspect I would have loved grad school, regardless), but a big component of it was that I no longer felt so lonesome.
Togetherness is something we all crave. We need it, in order to be happy and well-adjusted individuals. The way we live nowadays has isolated us from each other: in 2018, nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. By January of 2020, that number had grown to 61% and has only gotten worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Isolation isn’t just harmful to our psyches; it’s also associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. The reason it feels so bad to be lonely is because that emotional pain is a “biological alarm bell” (much like the sensation of hunger), warning us that our brains are actively being harmed. Moreover, a study done in February of this year with people from 237 different countries found that people from individualistic cultures tend to experience higher rates of loneliness. That same study found that Americans score extremely high (91 out of 100) on the scale of “individualist versus collectivist” cultures, with a higher score indicating a greater preference for individualism. In other words, Americans are at an unusually high risk for feeling lonely.
So perhaps there is some credence to the stereotype that immigrants, especially those from “collectivist” societies, are more likely to live in multigenerational households than native-born, “individualist” Americans. (And particularly white Americans.)
Honestly, to me, that concept isn’t so hard to believe. What I do refuse to believe is the implication that this is, at its heart, a “cultural” issue. It’s not. American individualism, at least when it comes to living arrangements, was created by the built environment, not by some characteristic that’s uniquely inherent to American people.
Just look at the history: the Minnesota Population Center developed a database, based on census records, that allowed them to examine 150 years of average living arrangements for white-American individuals and couples aged 65 and older. Since the 1850s, most people in this population lived with their children in late adulthood. Multigenerational households were the norm.
And when do we see the most dramatic shift toward white Americans living alone or with just their spouses? You guessed it: with the rise of the suburban development pattern in the latter half of the twentieth century, when single-family households became so common in the U.S. Maybe correlation doesn’t always imply causation, but I’m willing to bet it does in this case.
Therefore, I’d like to posit that multigenerational living isn’t immigrant culture. It’s human culture, and always has been. Modern American society is the abnormality in this scenario, not the immigrants who come to live here.
We are approaching a point where few people remain in our country who can remember what it was like to be alive before the suburban development pattern. So, we can forgive ourselves for feeling like solo living is a normal thing. But it’s time we acknowledge that our abandonment of traditional development models has harmed us—both at the societal and the individual level.
My hope is that by thickening up our cities and making meaningful changes to zoning codes, we can ease many peoples’ financial struggles and our epidemic of loneliness. You don’t have to stuff nine people into one house to save money; it could instead be as simple as letting people build ADUs on their properties, or allowing homeowners to create units out of their homes to rent to tenants.
Likewise, you don’t have to live with eight of your blood relatives to experience the benefits of a multigenerational community. In fact, I imagine there’s a lot of people out there who would struggle to live with their relatives. Maybe that’s you, and it’s left you feeling skeptical the whole time you’ve been reading this article. That’s perfectly fine. “Found” family, roommates, and neighbors can provide equally rewarding relationships, especially if you are (like me) on the introverted side and don’t easily find new friends. When the built environment provides opportunities for you to forge connections, it takes the pressure off of you to meet people on your own in unfamiliar settings.
Maybe you’re still not sure you believe me. If so, I’d like to close this out by imparting one last personal anecdote: In grad school I spent a summer living in Phoenix, and during that time I rented out a unit in the home of a lady who lived alone and whose kids had moved away.
Being quite the social butterfly, my landlady was able to introduce me to people I could hang out with during my time in Arizona, and served as my surrogate mother while I was there. I spent many hours chatting with her in her kitchen, where I cooked and shared meals with the other three tenants (of varying ages and backgrounds) who also lived in her house. I would never have sought out these connections on my own, had I been living solo—and I wish I could have traded all my loneliest undergrad years in Austin for my communal home in Phoenix, instead.
Americans must get back in touch with who we are, as human beings. If living alone means having to suffer, then what is there to celebrate about our cult of independence? Let’s open our minds back up to the possibility of living together, especially when we hit points in our lives when we need that support. And, more importantly, let’s return to a built environment where living together is permitted, in the first place.
This article was first published by Strong Towns.