Saturday, October 20, 2012

On Adults Living With Their Parents

After I got sick and the prospect of leaving home for Drama School or University came under threat, the prospect of continuing to live with my parents into adult life became a source of ongoing terror. It didn't happen. I left when I was eighteen. Then, eleven years later, I had to come back.

This is a very common scenario at the moment, for a great variety of reasons. Last week, the BBC reported that 1.6 million 20 to 40 year olds were living with their parents because they could not afford their own home. A spokesperson for Shelter is quoted as saying, "These figures paint a vivid picture of 20 and 30 somethings in arrested development."

Since I've been living with Stephen's and my parents, I've become very conscious about the way that adults living with their parents are discussed.  Arrested development?  In a Guardian article from earlier this year, Barbara Ellen put it more strongly:
I could barely suppress the urge to grab someone, perhaps not the 20-year-olds, but certainly the thirtysomethings and scream: "What are you playing at? You get one life and you're living it in your parents' house, as a strangely tall child, presumably with secondary sexual characteristics. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, however much your standard of living falls, you must save yourself and leave. At once!" 
But then I'm funny like that. I've always believed that people should have one of those things that start with a birth, end with a death and have lots of stuff going on in the middle. You know, a life.
Nice.  Urocyon wrote an excellent post about this a few months back, drawing from other subjects in the brilliant way she does, and quoting from the amazingly thorough Living in His Parents Basement Part 2: The Ideological Image: implies a social failure. It implies a failure because it’s assumed that such an individual either remains under parental control in a substantive way or they ironically exist as an “ungrateful child” who rebels against the rightful and reasonable demands of the parent.
Urocyon pulls together various intellectual strings to make the point that anxiety about adults living with their parents is born out of universalism; the idea that there is one way of doing things, and all other ways are problematic - either morally wrong, or harmful and unhealthy for the people involved.

I think there's even more missing from our narrative about adults living with their parents, so allow me to muse on the subject (after all, it's not my job to put out the bins).

Sometimes it's a choice, sometimes it's not much of a choice.

The idea of young adults not being able to afford their own home in the Shelter Report has two very different connotations in my mind - a fact that appears to be missed in almost all discussion of those forced to live with parents as a consequence of the economic downturn. There will people who are working towards establishing an income (whether from a position of unemployment or low paid employment) which would allow them to rent a place of their own - or simply waiting and hoping that rents will drop to affordable levels. Then there will be people who live with family to avoid rent while they save up to buy a house.

These situations are very different.  In one case, these people would be functionally homeless if they weren't able to fall upon the hospitality of friends or family.  We have a government preoccupied by the needs of "First Time Buyers", whilst cutting Local Housing Allowance across the board and abolishing all housing benefit for those under 25. As I wrote for Where's the Benefit? our government can't get over the idea of the idealised upper middle class family where there's an endless supply of space, love and material resources which any young adult would be a fool to leave behind. This renders young already vulnerable adults even more vulnerable to abuse - both from family, as well as from wealthier or older people who can offer them a way out.

It may be a problem that it's so difficult to get on the property ladder, but it is a much bigger problem that many young individuals, couples and sometimes families with children simply can't earn enough money to put a roof over their own heads.

Other times, it's really not a choice.

The adults I know who have always lived with parents are carers or themselves disabled, and disability is a huge factor in restricting a person's options for housing and living arrangements. Not merely in terms of needing care (even just a little too much to ask a regular housemate level of care can be a huge barrier to independent living), but in terms of finances, accessible and appropriate housing, plus confidence, which is not to be underestimated.

Before the economy sank, it wasn't exactly easy, but there was a fair amount of help, through state and charity schemes, to enable severely disabled people to move out of their parents' homes.  Almost all of this has been pared back or abandoned. And that sucks. Some people who didn't choose to live with their folks can study, work and save with a view to getting out some day. Some people really are stuck.

We are the lucky ones.

There are people in their twenties and thirties who don't have any parents, or whose parents' circumstances or character make it impossible for them to live together.  And these aren't exceptionally unlucky people - I know plenty of people who would have no familial safety net, given a single change in circumstance; a downturn in their health, unemployment or a broken relationship.

It's also worth mentioning that if Stephen were a woman, it would be impossible for us to stay with my parents (and extremely difficult for me to be here, even while it was long distance).  A lot of queer people who are forced back to their parents' homes, as well as people with religious (or non-religious) beliefs that clash with those of their parents, may have significant curbs placed on their social, sexual and spiritual lives.

There's also an assumption that adults living with parents will not have children - that somehow having children means you're guaranteed appropriate council housing and nothing can go wrong. Alas, not so.  And that's got to complicate things a lot further.

But this was normal before, it is normal elsewhere and it has never been particularly odd.

Most of my parents' generation are home-owners and managed to become so very early in life. Same with people a little younger than them. A little older and the story is different; Stephen's parents married and lived with his grandmother for a period of years before getting a mortgage on a flat of their own.  Same with my grandparents (both my sets of grandparents moved from their parents' homes into council houses - no shame back then).

In the generations before that, these arrangements were longer term. My Granny's childhood tales involve multi-generational households, with some adults children moving out and some staying to raise their families there. Back then, almost everyone was renting, so it wasn't a question of any given person or couple's house. Everyone who could, would contribute to the rent and housework, so the issue of dominion gets muddied.

And of course this has been going on in poorer families and families of other cultures always. Urocyon writes;
Where I'm from, it's totally normal to live “at home” until or unless you want to move out, usually when you get a career and a longterm relationship established. [...] It only makes sense, on a practical level, to make sure you have a decent income established before you try to live on your own. [...] That is until people who don’t have your practical best interest in mind, nor even understand your reasoning, start suggesting that you’re really failing at life by not adhering to their ideas about becoming an “independent adult”. 
We tend to see cultures where multiple generations share a home as oppressive and patriarchal, but this needn't be the case.  It can be the case, and I think choice is always what matters; when adult children feel unable to do their own thing because of familial obligations, when abuse continues unquestioned or when women of any generation are treated like slaves; that stuff is a problem.  But clearly, there are and always have been happy homes where several generations dwell together.

These days (for less than a hundred years) our culture expects units of two adult parents and two or three children to be happy workable arrangements for everyone.  Okay, so fewer people might mean less complex dynamics, but the nuclear family gives individuals far less time, money, energy and allies than the live-in extended family.

Today we think living alone is reasonably normal - at least for a while, either just before you marry and have babies or when you're old and widowed.  I'm very happy to live in a world where this is a practical and socially acceptable option for many (in the right circumstances, I imagine I could enjoy it myself), but historically, and in the greater scheme of things, that's far far stranger than living with one's parents into adulthood.  It's so inefficient!

All Families Are Different.  (Really!)

Tolstoy was wrong.  Even happy families can be completely different from one another.

We split our time between Stephen's and my parents' houses and the dynamics in one place are completely different from the dynamics in the other. Neither place is our own, so we have to fit in around other people, but how we achieve this varies a very great deal. We have a different routine, we contribute in different ways towards the cooking and housework and we have completely different arrangements with household expenses. There are different unwritten rules about food, money, territory, noise, privacy and language.

This difference remains a source of fascination to me. Of course I realised that other families could be very different, but I didn't expect to ever belong to any other family than the one I grew up in.  I do and it's really good - Stephen's family offer me all kinds of things I never had before.  I know I have been extremely lucky, but I am not discussing the way to live. I'm talking about ways people can and do live.

Exploiting Mum

In her article for the F-Word Taking Advantage of Mum, Rebecca argues that economic and benefit changes which force young adults to live with their parents place an undue burden of housework on middle-aged mothers:
I find myself falling back into old bad habits. I'll make myself a sandwich and leave the plate by the sink, the day will go by and I'll think to myself, "I really should wash that plate before mum comes home" but then I'll go to the library or to see a friend and when I get back the dirty plate will be sitting in the drying rack sparkling clean.
Rebecca makes an important point (as well as describing the complete absence of choice she has about her and her mother's living arrangements).  However, these family dynamics - where mothers are relied upon even by their teenage or adult children - are created and sustained. Their creation is complex, and influenced by outside forces, but they are not inevitable.

One stereotype attached to adults living with their parents is that the adult children enjoy complete indulgence from their mothers; preparing their meals, clearing up their mess and washing their clothes.
This has got to happen sometimes, but just as it is a sexist world that has conditioned generations of women to take on the greater burden of housework without question, it is a sexist stereotype that middle-aged women are so attached to their earlier mothering role that they will happily treat a twenty year old (or even a twelve year old) as one might a four or five year old, before they're able to dry dishes or make a sandwich.  I can't speak for mothers of adult children in general, but I can guarantee that at least two of them aren't like that.  Even being in receipt of personal care doesn't necessarily make one a burden.

However, Rebecca's mother and our parents are burdened with having us live with them, whether they like it or not.  And none of us particularly like it.

Growing Up / Not Growing Up

In Urocyon's post, she writes about how some models of impairment are based on deviance from "contemporary professional middle class conformism."  Certainly, many diagnostic symptoms of mental illness, autism and other cognitive/ developmental impairments aren't so much about unpleasant experiences (like most symptoms of physical illness), but unconventional behaviour or even unconventional methods of living and learning. An adult who is close to his parents, who is comfortable living with them, may be considered to have something wrong with him because we live in a culture where young people - especially men - are expected to rebel and set out on their own.

Our cultural ideas of maturity are very... cultural. A lot of them are about acquiring the vestiges of one particular lifestyle; a stable salaried job as part of a career, a mortgage, a committed monogamous relationship and a few (not too many) children. Adults who resist these things or find that they aren't realistic options are often told to "grow up".  It's common to see newspaper inches dedicated to a Generation who refuse to grow up, when really we're just doing things differently. On average, younger people are better educated because they're staying in education longer and more readily returning to education. Folk marry later, if at all, but those marriages last longer. Having children tends to be a more conscientious decision and more of us opt out. Young men are even less likely to commit suicide these days (when for ages we treated suicide almost as an occasional side effect of testosterone plus youth). There may be certain problems unique to twenty and thirty somethings, but less mature?  I blow a raspberry at that.

Not got a mortgage? Wow. Nobody told my great grandfathers, each veterans of the First World War, that they were a generation that never grew up because so few ordinary working people ever had a mortgage (and a lot of them came home to live with their parents).

The only common issue I see in among adults I know who have never left their parents' home, is one of confidence. As I've said, disability is usually in this mix. These stereotypes of inadequate adults too lazy or dependent to move out are often internalised, when in reality there's been no option. The same thing goes for romantic experience; if you've been housebound for the last ten years, chances are you've not met anyone in circumstances were you might have struck up a relationship, but it's still tough not to feel unattractive and unwanted.

Meanwhile, I've known people in their thirties and forties who have jobs, partners and homes of their own who really haven't moved on, emotionally, from their mid teens.  I've known people who have relationships with their parents which seem weird, unevolved or even vaguely incestuous, after the kids have lived away for decades.  I've certainly known adults who regularly take money from their parents despite living away and having their own income.  I've known adult men who leave dirty washing on the floor, can't iron a shirt and expect to be waited on hand and foot, but who have an office job, wife, mortgage and two cute children, so the world thinks they're just fine.

We are not our living arrangements.

Then again, maybe I'm just a Middle Class Status Symbol

My Dad has long joked about his children being expensive and always asking for money, despite the fact that (to my knowledge) we've both been financially independent from the end of school and until two years ago, neither of us had lived with them as adults (and I've never been here for more than six weeks at a stretch, and never more than five months total in the year).

When I first moved back in, I was initially hurt, confused and irritated by the way Dad framed it, as if this was a continuation of the heavy yet fictional financial burden his children had placed upon him (particularly as I was merely taking up space). But then I realised that this wasn't about how he felt but how he wanted to be seen. Dad works around much wealthier people for whom a wayward adult child, yet to get themselves together - drifting through foreign adventures, interminable higher education, experiments in self-employment and unpaid internships - is a symbol of magnanimous and bottomless wealth. You have the child or children who've made it to the top of their game by the age of thirty, but you can afford to have the one that's swanning about doing nothing and living in one of your converted outbuildings.

Adults who exploit whoever happens to be around for cash, domestic chores and accommodation are not restricted to any particular class or generation, but only fairly privileged people can afford to boast about such behaviour in their children.

Households where there are fewer beds than people don't tend to complain so loudly. Adults forced to live with their parents as carers, disabled dependents or in dire financial circumstance don't write hilarious memoirs about the experience. Yet these experiences are all but absent from the stories we hear about adults living with their parents.


Alicia said...

This is so weird for me, in my country we are happy to share a house, is more economic, we are also okay in living alone but sometimes going to live alone before marriage is not recomended, it's a waste of money.
I only see this in awful american movies that want to show the greatest failure in someone life or lack of life and it sounds ridiculous but they are terrible movies, what's wrong with an adult living with their family?

I assumed it couldn't be like that in real life.

I found your post and Urocyon post great but I don't really understand this aspect of your countries.

Matthew Smith said...

In the UK, I think the older generation (now in their late 50s/early 60s) got lucky in terms of being able to find housing relatively cheaply at a time when jobs were plentiful. There was also a lot of council housing which hadn't become rundown as it has since the 1980s when the best stock was sold off. Since then, supply simply hasn't kept up with demand and London has become the preferred second home for the global super-rich, and this flow of wealth into London has pushed up house prices in the home counties where people also want holiday homes or a base for commuting. The upshot is that the younger generation can barely afford to get on the housing ladder because most of the jobs that are available do not pay enough. I'm still living with my parents myself, and my sister has moved out (she is married with one daughter), but she lives in a poky flat within smelling distance of a sewage and landfill site, the cost is nearly £200,000 and my parents have had to give them a lot of help with that.

I find this has caused a lot of resentment, with some radio programmes dedicated to "debating" whether Baby Boomers are all to blame for the present generation's problems, because they're living in the houses their children need, they got free university education and now they've kicked away the ladder for the youth. I think that's unhelpful - many of them have adult children who are still partly dependent on them, particularly for housing, and the free education claim just isn't true for most. Many of them did, however, easily find employment - there was plenty of it then for all skill levels, which is certainly not the case now. I've had a few run-ins with certain relatives over how they've worked hard since they were 16, unlike me (that's because they were 16 in 1970, not 1993). But they got work easily; I never have done, even during the boom years and certainly not now.

The Goldfish said...

Alicia - it is odd. I think a lot of it may be economic - that, as I've said and Matthew has elaborated on, for people in their 50s and early 60s now, it was dead easy to get a mortgage on a house, at a very young age and on a relatively low wage. So it made more sense to that generation, and even since it's been seen as normal to get out as soon as possible.

Matthew - this is true, and it was very much that generation. My grandparents all ended up owning their own home, and actually one Granny's parents owned theirs - but they were the only people on the street who did. Before then, people rented - as most people still do in many other countries, including those in Europe.

Whereas my parents got a mortgage when they married at 21 and 22, in 1974, both in low paid jobs.

I think part of the generational problem, is that that generation went on to think that their experience was normal. My sister lives in Hampshire and was paying a fortune in rent, and came under a lot of pressure from my folks to get a mortgage at exactly the wrong time (I mean, poor girl really did buy at the absolute *peak* of house prices). Because my parents think home-ownership is normal.

I don't think it's fair to blame a generation for anything, but I do think that some members of our folks' generation who don't have a clue how easy they had it, money wise. My parents think they have had a lot of problems in life, with money and unemployment - and there were certainly times when they were seriously hard up. But they are richer now than their parents ever were and richer than their children are ever likely to be, and still they think they've never been adequately rewarded for all their hard work...

Myrin said...

I really want to sign everything you've said here, especially because I feel like you're being very fair while considering all the views people might have (contrary to many who just cry "Living at home? = NO LIFE!!!").

I'm 21 and still live in a (rent) flat with my mum and my little sister.
This is partly due to financial reasons since I'm still a student at university (and likely will be one for a few years to come) and can only manage a part time job atm - so paying for the train to take me to uni is way cheaper than trying to rent something in the big and expensive city I study at.
However, I also really enjoy living with my family. I have a great relationship with both my mum and my sister and I try to help out as much as possible (especially since I'm a passionate cook and at least during the holidays I try to do most of the cooking) so as to not be a burden to my mother.

I can very well imagine living with at least my mum (not because I don't want to live with my sister but because she's very independent and probably will move in with her boyfriend some day) even when I'm older. Partly because she already has multiple health issues and it's expected that she won't be able to walk properly sooner or later and I want to help her managing her life as much as possible (of course only if she wants me to) but also because she's a great person and I don't think I should be ashamed of wanting to live with her (even though here in Germany it's also frowned upon).

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Myrin. :-)

I think a lot of this comes down to the idea that all family relationships are the same and that they don't evolve. So for example, the idea that your mother is always your mother in the sense she was when you were quite small, that relationship could never evolve to become more like friendship (we're pretty bad on cross-generational friendships too - assuming that older friends will always be like parent-substitutes and younger friends fulfil some maternal or paternal role for us).

Of course, some parents do get stuff in full time "parent mode", but not all, not by any means.

You should certainly not feel ashamed of the living arrangements you have or want in the future - you certainly shouldn't feel ashamed for wishing to take care of and spend time with someone you love and enjoy being with, whoever they are.