Moving back home

Remember the old gag where a son announces to his parents that they want to be treated like an adult. The parents grumble about rights and responsibilities, but accept the point.  The family sits down at the table and the mother brings plates of food.  The dad asks his son if the food is to his liking and is met by a big smile and a request for seconds, so the plate is duly refilled.  When the meal is over, the dad asks again and is told, “I couldn’t eat another thing.”  “Excellent,” says the dad, “I’ll prepare the bill.  This restaurant accepts cash and cheques.”

A friend has a particular issue with her 26-year old son, namely that after a spell of him moving out into a shared flat, that arrangement has come to an end and he has moved back in with her and begun treating her home like a hotel.  He comes and goes at will, does not stick to scheduled meal times and is slowly driving her round the bend.  It’s not that he is not willing to help but is handicapped by two factors:  an inability to do basic tasks like cooking, cleaning or washing, or indeed to see what needs to be done and just do it; and the fact that he can’t see how difficult it makes life for his mum.  To him it’s a version of returning to the comforts of home enjoyed through childhood, but with the added benefits of adult living thrown in for good measure.  He pays something towards the cost but it’s less a money issue than negotiating a fair compromise for the satisfaction of both parties in cohabiting successfully – as opposed to occasional familial visits.

It was always a difficult issue, and it’s always happened that children who have flown the nest find themselves, temporarily or permanently, moving back in with parents.  Typically it might have followed the trend that son or daughter goes to university then has a lull pending appointment to their first “proper” job, during which the two options are to stay in whatever rented accommodation is available, possibly claim benefits or do whatever temporary work options are available, or to move back the nest.  Most parents are supportive, both in financial and practical terms, though some family circumstances that may not be an option for a fair proportion of young people.

The other thing is that with student debts, the uncertain jobs market, marriage break-ups after a very short time and many more slings and arrows of modern living, there are probably more people returning back to the family nest than ever, often through lack of choice.  Don’t believe me?  Look here and here for confirmation that record levels of young people are now moving back home.  In fact, this is worth quoting in full:

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said more than 3.3 million adults between the ages of 20 and 34 were living with parents in 2013, 26% of that age group.

The number has increased by a quarter, or 669,000 people, since 1996.  This is despite the fact that the number of 20 to 34-year-olds in the UK remains almost the same, the ONS said.  In 1996, the earliest year for which comparable statistics are available, there were 2.7m 20 to 34-year-olds living in the family home – 21% of the age group at that time.

The ONS also found young men were more likely to live at home than women. One in three men live with their parents, compared with one in five women.

Graph showing total number of young adults living with their parents
Graph showing greater proportions of young men than women live with their parents

London has the lowest rate of 20 to 34-year-olds living with their parents, with the figure at 22%.

Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of young adults living with their families at 36%, followed by the West Midlands at 29%.  The ONS said the size of Northern Ireland means it is more feasible to commute to work or university and remain living with parents than in other parts of the UK.  Also, cohabitation in Northern Ireland is about half as common as in the rest of the UK.

The ONS suggested the trend of living at home might be due to the recent economic downturn.  Karen Gask, senior research officer at the ONS, said: “I think one of the main reasons is housing affordability, and that’s been cited by several academics who’ve looked into it.  It’s hard for young people to get on the housing ladder.”

The ratio of house prices paid by first time buyers to their annual incomes has risen from 2.7 to 4.47 in the period from 1996 to 2013, she added.  Miss Gask also said many were delaying settling down with a partner, choosing to stay with family instead.  There are wider implications for things like fertility rates, as people often look to move out of the parental home before having children.”

Other findings from the ONS study include:

  • Some 65% of men and 52% of women aged 20 lived at home in 2013
  • The figure decreases with age. At 34, 8% of men and 3% of women were living with parents
  • The percentage of young people living with their parents who are unemployed was 13%, more than double the unemployment rate of those who live elsewhere, which was 6%
  • A total of 510,000 people aged 35 to 64, 2% of the total population in that age group, were living with parents in 2013 – this rate has stayed stable since 1996, the ONS said.

In my case, I stayed around in Nottingham after my degree and applied for jobs, visiting my folks at regular intervals.  When I got a job it was in the wilds of rural Cheshire, though the company was ailing for the whole time I was there so inevitably the moment came when I had no choice but to return home for a stay that lasted several months.

It was not through choice, since I really wanted to exercise freedoms and, in spite of my natural shyness, to meet people and start meeting expectations that I would lead a “normal life” and gain a solid role with a good employer, finance a home, meet a steady partner, and in due course produce grandchildren.  Self-reliance is always preferable, but we have to accept that things don’t always work out smoothly.  At least I did do all of the above in my own time, but others may make other lifestyle choices for their own reasons.

OK, so shit happens and children do have to go back to the parental home, but times have changed since the child is now nominally a grown-up.  Like my friend’s issue, how do both sides adapt to the new circumstances?

From a parental perspective it’s certainly right to agree the financial support for bed and board, but also to lay down ground rules.  The old line trotted out on these occasions used to be “when you’re living in my house you live by my rules” though the parent must also recognise that things are not quite the same and that respect must be given as well as taken,  and number one on the list may be policy towards guests.

When you were a child there may have been a rule that you didn’t bring anyone back without express approval, and they certainly didn’t stay the night, other than in the context of innocent birthday sleepovers, for example.  In their adult mindset, the “child” may well want to go out drinking, picking up partners and want a bed for the night to share with whomsoever they wish.  To the new-found B&B owner it may be that a regular boy/girl friend is acceptable but not somebody picked up as a one night stand, so there must be an escalation process for what happens if and when that happens, what happens if the rule is broken and to what extent a blind eye can be turned – especially if the parent was doing the same in their own day.

But attitudes to sexual partners are but one aspect of a complex scenario, and participation in chores another.  Behaviours of grown up offspring can encompass a multitude of what to parents can appear sins.  To what extent is the drinking and/or smoking continuum acceptable?  How about recreational drug use?  What about noise at various times of the day and night?  What about leaving a sinkful of dirty crockery?  How about breakages?  An assertive parent may have no problem dealing with these obstacles, but many more find the process of negotiating a settlement more stressful than dealing with the taxman and divorce lawyer combined.

Most of all, what if the hospitality is being abused, such that the length of stay goes on well longer than ever anticipated or promised, and shows no signs of ending?  My friend pointed out that she did not want her son living with her when he is 40, not least because she has her own life to lead and does not want to be encumbered with responsibilities to a son playing gooseberry, or indeed assuming parental duties over her lifestyle.

It can be difficult to broach the subject, much like the birds and the bees when your kids are undergoing puberty, but sometimes the parent has to suggest in delicate terms that while the child is most welcome to visit, should they not be taking responsibility for their own lives and getting a place of their own?  My friend’s son goes through a cycle of reactions beginning with laughter and finishing in tears when this topic is raised, and doubtless other similar conversations have led to raging arguments and one party or the other storming out.  The risk of conflicts that would not result if you were not dealing with a friend or relative is proportionately higher, possibly because both sides will have skeletons in their respective closets and therefore there is far greater scope for the argument to progress before sulky silences and door banging follows.

Doubtless in some situations the best result is for the parent to fork out a deposit on a new rented place, or even in some cases to help the child get a mortgage, but the old saying still applies: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  Home will be more comforting, less scary and sometimes even worth turning down a generous offer of financial assistance, despite the inevitability of compromises to your preferred lifestyle if that means you can’t truly let your hair down and party-party all night.

Nevertheless, it’s a strangely symbiotic relationship in which both parties need the other to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes hoping that it will end and a pattern of occasional visits in both directions can be substituted.  Even in emergencies and crises parents and children will be clinging to the same wreckage, because, as the cliché has it, blood is thicker than water – except where it isn’t.  Chances are that most parental relationships will reach a tipping point, after which the kids increasingly take responsibility for the well-being of the parents, and to some extent repaying the things the parents did for the kids earlier in life, not least putting them up when they were not in a position to fend for themselves.

I have no doubt my kids will be highly self-reliant but there may yet come a time when they need to come to stay with their old dad for a period, and when that happens I shall endeavour to treat them like adults and be accommodating, providing my trust is not taken for granted.  As it is, it’s a pleasure to see them when I get the opportunity.

The final irony here is that I’m going to meet a potential client early next week in Stockport.  If I agree that particular piece of work, the cheapest alternative would be for me to stay with my mother in Wilmslow, a 20-minute drive from the hospital.  Bearing in mind that this particular child is of rather advanced years and my mother is now 82, this would mean a good period of readjustment for us both, but I doubt very much whether that is unique.  Other benefits for me are the ability to see more of mum and some of my old chums from around the Manchester area, and for mum she will welcome me being on hand to ferry her to supermarkets and other places to buy and transport her essentials, do odd jobs that she can’t easily do (eg. Buy and set up her new telephone handsets), not to mention taking her out for the occasional meal, cinema or theatre trip.  Think that works out to a quid pro quo, though of course I shall insist on giving her some money too.  And it goes without saying that I shall be a perfect guest and not outstay my welcome!

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