In most Western countries, the number of people aged over 65 is set to double in the next couple of decades. At the same time, especially in Germany, access to childcare is becoming more and more difficult and expensive, while the quality of kindergartens is decreasing. Germany took an unconventional approach and tried to tackle these challenges with its Mehrgenerationenhäuser II, which translates as “multigenerational houses”. These houses offer childcare, a place where young families can drop in for coffee and advice, a social centre, and a space where elderly people interact with younger generations. More than 500 of these centres were established (one in each municipality) and they have become an integral part of their local community, easing demographic challenges in the process.
Germany, like most Western countries, is facing a number of demographic and social challenges. By 2060, more than half of the German population will be over 50, and every third German will be over 60, while only a minority of the elderly will be able to pay for full-time daycare, which makes other forms of integration a necessity. The elderly often need an appropriate living environment and nursing care, while some live in major cities without any family members nearby. Childcare is another very prevalent issue for Germany: access to it is competitive and increasingly expensive, especially for poorer families. For instance, a third of children from lower-income families were not going to a kindergarten in 2016. Intergenerational relationships have been traditional for centuries and have been crucial in easing these health and social problems. Now they are breaking up, because of increasing urbanisation and labour mobility, so new forms of social cohabitation are needed.
In order to tackle the problems of an ageing population and the increasing cost of childcare, the Federal Ministry of Family, Elderly, Women and Youth launched an initial policy in 2006 with the aim of strengthening intergenerational relations – which nowadays are hard to develop – through the establishment of multigenerational houses.
The second phase of the policy, Mehrgenerationenhäuser II, was initiated in 2012. It continued to establish community centres offering an open meeting-place for people from different backgrounds, age groups, and social groups. The policy coordinated the services offered by existing houses, tailored them to respond to local needs, and also extended and increased the amount of funding. The Federal Ministry of Family, Elderly, Women and Youth explained the vision of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser II programme to be the establishment of these intergenerational connections: “The old lady helps a student with his homework, and he in turn explains to her how to use a smartphone”.
The multigenerational houses are mostly located within a large townhouse (often timbered like many traditional houses in Germany) with spacious areas for different activities. Each house is supported by the German federal government at a total cost of approximately EUR17.5 million for the programme. Each house in the programme is set to receive EUR30,000 per year from 2017 until 2020, with additional funds (EUR10,000) raised locally by either the municipality, county or state. Multigenerational houses bring together under one roof groups and services that had previously operated in isolation, such as childcare services, youth groups, support for young mothers, daycare for the elderly, and advice centres. This means that all age groups have a single, universal community centre, where they can both give and receive support, according to their strengths and needs.
Forming a key part of the German government’s ageing strategy since 2006, when the buildings were established, the multigenerational houses offer inexpensive services and support in daily activities for older people, such as shopping, cleaning, food and care services. The Mehrgenerationenhäuser II policy aimed to bundle together those social services that before were provided by different operators. The objective was to manage demographic change, create wealth, improve living standards for all Germans, and respond to local needs. By formulating a strategy on demographic change in 2015, the German government continued to state the aim of strengthening social and intergenerational collaboration as well as developing social participation for the elderly.
The public impact
There are now over 540 multigenerational houses across Germany, at least one in every county, and 20,000 volunteers are participating in the programme, which is held up as a successful model for social involvement.
The multigenerational houses have been particularly successful in easing the competitive childcare situation, while simultaneously providing an opportunity for the elderly to take over meaningful tasks within the community by looking after children and studying with them. According to a study conducted by the Bertelsmann foundation after the 2012 policy was implemented, multigenerational houses offered more than 1,100 services that were explicitly aimed at children under 14 years old. This corresponded to increase of more than 50 percent compared to childcare services offered in 2008, when around 750 such services were offered. Accordingly, the proportion of houses without any childcare service on offer was cut in half from 30 percent to 15 percent. 
The multigenerational houses were also successful in strengthening intergenerational encounters, which can be observed in increasing scores on the Generationenindex: the average index for 2009 was 0,65, climbing to 0,69 in 2014. Three-quarters of the houses show increased interactions between young and old.
These “public living rooms” have come to be regarded as an important example of new concepts in a modern welfare state, where conventional institutional help is combined with mobilised civic engagement. Yet they offer a great deal more: “People are rarely happy on their own,” explains Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen, who attends a multigenerational house in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district, “which is why multigenerational houses are the model for the future: learning from one another, feeling needed, sharing joy.” Since evaluations showed that the houses had significant impact on intergenerational exchange, their funding was extended in 2017 when the federal government renewed its funding commitment.
Written by Julia Schnatz
This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).Have an idea for a case study? Print
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
Politicians and local communities have realised that there is a need to address demographic change by providing functioning infrastructure for intergenerational cohabitation. From the start, the federal government supported municipal or free carriers in operating the Mehrgenerationenhaus and defining its role according to local needs. Municipalities and the Mehrgenerationenhäuser act together with local players such as homeowners to take on responsibilities in managing demographic change as well as providing municipal public services and a range of customised activities for the local populace. For example, homeowners or operators of existing community service structures can approach the municipality at any time and discuss their ideas for a multigenerational house directly and in collaboration with the local government. But local collaboration does not stop there: even the cofinancing between federal and local government is binding, and aims at firmly integrating those houses into the municipality, so that each one becomes a key player in that region.
With the programme being extended recently, the government has put increasing effort into researching how to bring different civic society actors together, e.g. through roundtables and discussions that take place in the community centres to further engage different stakeholders. Especially in rural areas, local companies were supportive of the policy and often helped to raise additional funds for their regional multigenerational house, since it often was the only point where community services were provided.
Political Commitment Strong
The Mehrgenerationenhäuser II programme enjoyed a good level of political commitment. Ursula von der Leyen, now federal minister of defence, then minister of social affairs, independently developed the idea of “public living rooms” in 2003 due to her experience of living under one roof with her large family and seeing the need to create a place where personal encounters across generations are possible. Those houses were the first point of contacts for intergenerational encounters. Since then, she has been crucial in pushing the initiative forward and securing its funding.
The government and the Federal Ministry of Family, Elderly, Women, and Youth showed a solid level of commitment to this programme through sustained funding. The government has committed funding of EUR 40,000 per year to each multigenerational house between 2017 and 2020 (see also The Initiative above). Three-quarters of this is allocated from the budget of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, while the remaining quarter needs to be provided by municipal or state governments. So far, this mode of cofinancing has been made binding, and is intended to embed the Mehrgenerationenhäuser into the municipality and strengthen their role as a local player. Chancellor Angela Merkel was also strongly supportive of the policy: “Mehrgenerationenhäuser are an excellent model that allows us to see how we will be able to move social collaboration forward and improve compatibility of family life and a career.”
Public Confidence Strong
Multigenerational houses have become firmly integrated in local communities, indicating the public support behind the programme. They take residents’ needs into account and communicate them to municipality and county leaders. By providing open and uncomplicated access, they even reach out to people who are more reserved or who do not feel as though they belong to society, and make these people’s voices heard. Mehrgenerationenhäuser are thought to increase information exchange among the population, enhance local discourse, and ultimately bolster social cohesion. Therefore, Mehrgenerationenhäuser have established themselves as an important partner within the municipalities and counties across Germany. With around 61,400 users per day, they provide support in daily activities for people across all age groups.
One of the volunteers in a multigenerational house in Hamburg, a young mother, says: “Spending my time here and helping out others gives me a purpose and makes me happy”. Every day, she works in the café that is at the heart of the house, while both of her children play upstairs in the childcare centre. The tables are always busy with a mix of people who go to the centre for advice or just for the sake of not being lonely. As community centres, the houses are popular with families, employers, and local public services as well as the elderly, because “each benefits from the mutual support they unlock, which is simple in itself, but which cumulatively creates abundant value”.
Some critics say the popular programme is a “fig leaf for the state’s retreat from the care sector”. However, the German government says that “intergenerational centres were never intended as a replacement for proper social services, but as an attempt to recreate the kind of social networks that have withered away since it has become rare for generations of the same family to live in the same house or even in the same city”.
Clear Objectives Good
As early as 2006 when the idea first was put into policy, the Ministry of Families, Elderly, Women and Youth formulated the main goals of the initiative:
- To support social and intergenerational cohesion within municipalities
- To increase living standards within neighbourhoods.
While the initial policy from 2006 focused on clearly formulated policy areas, the Mehrgenerationenhäuser II policy in 2012 focused on “managing demographic change” as a broad aim that could be defined individually by each house.
The main goal of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser II policy, as stated from the outset, was to “support municipalities in shaping demographic change together with the houses that serve as a community centre”. The federal government intended to create better access to social infrastructure and employment through these open-access houses. It also took into account the new challenges arising from the need to integrate refugees into German society as a whole. In all other respects, each multigenerational house is unique, and each may choose to emphasise different aspects. In close communication with the municipality, the multigenerational house can raise its profile according to the demographic development within the specific municipality, based on local needs.
Substantively, the focus on designing demographic change is mandatory for all houses, while the focus on integrating refugees is optional and depends on the realities at a municipal level. In close alignment with the municipal government, they are provided with enough flexibility to respond to changing local realities.
The 2013 coalition agreement between the ruling parties at a federal level reinforced this objective by stating that multigenerational houses should “become an overarching hub for social collaboration and participation within municipalities, while each sets their individual emphasis on how to design their space”.
When the policy was reformulated in 2017, the main overall objectives were slightly modified to be:
- Access to employment across generations
- Voluntary work
Orientation towards the social space and marginalised groups such as the unemployed and single parents.
The conceptual design of the 2012 policy is based solely on past experiences from the houses that have been opened since 2003. Between 2004 and 2006, about 200 houses in the state of Lower Saxony were selected to serve as a baseline for the 2012 policy, which was supposed to redefine some of the services offered at the houses. Those houses had been developed and advanced in close collaboration with municipal actors and scientific researchers. The researchers monitored services offered at the houses as well as public acceptance rates by interviewing users and operators biannually.
However, at the end of the studies, most of the houses that received governmental support through the Mehrgenerationenhäuser II policy in 2012 were already closely integrated into the community, and had just expanded the range of activities they offered in order to secure future funding. Only a fraction of the houses were actually newly built under the 2012 policy, based on previous experiences. Also, there was no evidence of nationwide information gathering in order to inform the policy’s design.
The German government provides EUR17.5 million of annual funding for the implementation of multigenerational houses and has firmly secured this funding in the federal budget for five years. However, three main feasibility issues arose in the course of implementing the policy.
Firstly, budget constraints mean that multigenerational houses are only allowed to spend half of their annual budget on salaries; this is in order to encourage the use of volunteers. “The idea is that the state only gives us the first push,” said Annette Köppel, chairwoman of a multigenerational house in Pattensen (Lower Saxony). Especially for care-related programmes within the house, highly qualified nursing personnel need to be paid. Even though the European Union has topped up the German funding, money for salaries is tight. In Pattensen, additional funds are raised through charging a nominal fee for workshops and selling food in the canteen, as well as through local charities and sponsorship. Although the houses are able to finance themselves to a certain extent, income from these activities does not pay for the majority of the costs and makes internal planning and management very important for the operators.
Secondly, high-level bureaucracy poses an additional challenge for local operators. Conference calls, where-used lists, and reporting and audit obligations are expensive and time-consuming, and they have to be carried out by an employer instead of one of the voluntary workers the centres often rely upon. Federal funds are allocated for one year at a time only. So, every year the operators have to provide a cofunding declaration signed by the municipality as proof that they will receive funding for the forthcoming year.
Thirdly, there is the issue of accreditation. In order to receive both federal and municipal funding, existing multigenerational houses have to be anchored within the community. Most of them have existed for many years already, as a senior centre for example, before they apply for public funding. This makes it difficult to found new multigenerational houses.
To address these feasibility challenges, the federal government implemented a service point that provides operators with the necessary information about funding alternatives and the expertise to use funds in a more efficient manner. They also connect the houses with foundations that can provide additional funding. However, the service was unable to ease some of the above challenges. So far, it has not been broadly used by multigenerational houses’ operators, since the most common approach is rather to reduce the number of services offered and limit opening hours in order to save money. Most of the houses remain underfunded.
Multigenerational houses are managed by an independent operator who has to provide annual evidence of municipal approval. This is to ensure the commitment on both sides to actively address the challenges of demographic change. Every year, the Federal Office for Family and Civic Functions, based in Cologne, carries out a monitoring exercise to collect data about the organisation of the houses and the contextual implementation of the policy. This exercise is aimed at updating information on recent developments as well as gathering important data on the performance level of the houses across different states. The monitoring contains questions regarding available resources, the different users, activities, and the status of implementation.
The Federal Office also administers an evaluation with every central player involved with the houses and their environment. Every year, coordinators, volunteers, users, and the co-financing municipalities are interviewed twice during the programme to find out about the houses’ challenges, activities, and impacts on society. Their aim is to gather empirical insights into the inner workings of the multigenerational houses and disseminate them to operators across Germany.
The impact of each of these multigenerational houses is measured by the development, testing and introduction of benchmarks and consistent quality criteria. A private evaluation institute, managed by the Federal Office for Family and Civil Society, makes randomly selected annual visits to multigenerational houses in order to assess each centre against certain benchmarks. Important quality criteria include the sustainability of activities, the degree to which young and old people are brought together, and how well the centres are integrated into local communities.
The quality criteria set by the Federal Office for Family and Civil Society are not meant to impose guidelines on the implementation of the policies in each house, but rather provide orientation on what the baselines of the houses are and what qualifications, approach and framework are necessary for successful execution and achievement of the programme’s main objectives. Emphasis is placed on the number of different approaches that can be combined and transferred between houses. The results of the study have shown that the houses overall are performing very well – each of them contributed to intergenerational exchange in a sustainable manner.
The federal government is particularly interested in supporting municipalities in dealing with demographic challenges, and therefore continuously gathers evidence on how flexible adjustments allow for tackling this challenge. Currently, the government is researching which conditions bolster societal integration and which pose an impediment to it. Building on that, they assess the quality of different measures to find out which conditions strengthen integration and collaboration, and whether they are transferable between communities. Data is collected by randomly selecting a set of houses and then conducting qualitative interviews with their users. The results are then annually presented to the operators of the houses to disseminate examples of best practice among the houses’ operators and, ultimately, to improve the services provided by each of the community centres.
Another important measurement is the Generationenindex, which measures if, and to what degree, the houses reach their goal of strengthening the exchange across different generations (children, youth, adults, and senior citizens). Ultimately, the Federal Ministry of Family, Elderly, Women, and Youth, which commissioned the study that developed the index, measured how well the multigenerational houses performed with regard to the main policy objective, i.e. connecting older and younger generations. The index provides insights into which age groups actually use the services provided by each house – ideally all four age groups would use their services, which would result in a score of 1. The average index for 2009 was 0,65, climbing to 0,69 in 2014.
The Mehrgenerationenhäuser II policy is part of Germany’s strategy for demographic change, which is a comprehensive national ageing population plan drawing together a wide range of policy measures. Developed and managed by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, which is based in Berlin, the government depends greatly on the municipal governments as well as private carriers and voluntary workers to make the centres a success. In order to establish multigenerational houses successfully, both the federal and the state government had to align with municipalities and local communities in a joint effort.
Multigenerational houses offer a range of activities, customised to meet local needs. They collaborate closely with other local players in order to avoid programme duplication, to fill in gaps and connect them with other actors, such as agencies for voluntary work, associations and unions, and cultural institutions. Thus, synergies are created and serve to strengthen local structures. “It takes time to bring people of different backgrounds and generations together, and it takes time to build up trust in the centres, but up until today, the multigenerational houses have established themselves as a key player in local communities”, says Christoph Linzbach from the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
The Federal Ministry also organises roundtables and discussion groups on a regular basis with relevant social players such as welfare and charity organisations, the employment office, and unions. Local companies are convinced of the houses’ merits and the role they play within the communities: Toni Meggle, chairman of the board of Meggle GmbH, took over the sponsorship of a multigenerational house in the town where the company has its headquarter: “I am aware of the social responsibility our company has for the region, that’s why taking over a sponsorship for a multigenerational house was a logical step for me”. The company even organised a charity run to raise extra funds for the house in Wasserburg (Bavaria).
Voluntary workers make a major contribution to the success of such institutions. More than 20,000 volunteers of all ages have so far been involved in multigenerational houses. Together with employees, they provide activities crucial to achieving the aim of the policy: they look after children, provide German classes, help the elderly with technology, or engage in performing arts. People of all ages are encouraged to focus on their strengths and contribute their capabilities on the community. The houses are most successful in engaging 55- to 65-year-olds – those in transition between work and retirement. They are particularly involved with older people, who are in need of everyday support and social contact, and also in relieving the pressures on those in full-time work. These initiatives provide inexpensive ways of joining up various social challenges – social isolation among older people, time-poor parents, and increasingly scattered families – and stimulate the provision of informal care in the community.