Independence is a rare commodity for today’s young adults. First time buyer numbers have fallen more than 60% in the last ten years, and as I argued recently, those few able to get a toe-hold on the property ladder are increasingly dependent on the wealth of their parents, not their own saving habits.
So what’s happening? Often ignored in this debate are the thousands of young adults still living in their childhood bedroom: both the ‘boomerang generation’ and those who never left.
To understand this issue, I think it’s worth looking at our European neighbours.
An article in the German newspaper Der Spiegel recently argued that the European countries with the worst performing economies are forcing their young people to stay in their parents’ home. The article pointed to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy where nearly half of 24-35 year olds live with their parents. This compares to countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland where fewer than 4% live in their childhood home.
As the Financial Times pointed out though, this is too simplistic. There are many reasons why young people live with their parents, including cultural reasons. When you look at the proportional change in young people living with their parents before and after the economic crisis, there is not a big difference between northern countries like Denmark and southern ones like Spain.
How does this relate to young people in this country? The data clearly shows more and more young adults (age 20-34) in England living with their parents since the late 1990s.
Is this because we’re developing a more southern European attitude towards independence and home-ownership?
No. Ipsos Mori polling shows that the vast majority of young people in this country still want to own their own home and that this has been the case for decades. In fact, the majority of young people expect to own their own home [PDF] one day, even though high prices make this increasingly unrealistic.
In others words we have the worst of both worlds. Young people are wedded to their northern European aspiration of independence and home-ownership, even though increasingly they find themselves in a southern European model: living with their parents well into their thirties, followed by insecure renting.
Clearly this can create family tension.
I was struck recently by the example of one family on Radio 4’s series ‘Generations Apart’. The father had bought decades ago in Windsor for £5,000 and couldn’t understand why his two sons were still living at home, especially now they had jobs. Why couldn’t they just move out and gain independence as he had done?
Like other parents in a similar situation, he was coming to the view that it was partly his fault. He thought he had treated them too softly. The solution was to give them a kick: charging them rent or even selling his home and moving abroad.
Of course, this is a misdiagnosis of the problem. The affordability of housing, not young peoples’ attitudes to housing is what’s changing. In Windsor, average house prices are now well over £400,000.
Unlike much of southern Europe where it is normal for young adults to remain in their parents’ home, young people in this country feel as though they are doing something wrong if they haven’t moved out by their thirties. As a country we either need to abandon our aspirations and accept a radically different pattern of life as normal, or start directing the anger generated by frustrated ambitions towards solving the problem.