Consider – just for a nanosecond – the environs of your washing machine. Are you still gazing in amazement at piles of not very dirty inside-out clothes and mucky exercise kit strewn around the floor? Are you still wondering where all the food in the fridge went for the second time this week? No sooner have we recovered from Empty Nest Syndrome than the kids have come back. As long as your Wi-Fi connection is strong.
Student debt, property prices and the recession are driving a generation of children back home. Initially, they leave for university or to flatshare, but if the job falls through or they need to save money, more and more young adults are returning to live with their parents – right into their thirties.
With the average age of a first-time property buyer now approaching 40 in some parts of the country, it’s not surprising that nearly three million adult children still live at home and millions more are being financially helped by their parents.
As parents, we love having our kids around, and we might even go on holiday with them for an intergenerational jolly, but I don’t think the idea of grown-up kids returning to live at home was in the plans of either generation.
Even when your relationship is good, there is a strong instinct in young adults to get away – and a return to live with their parents can easily feel like a failure, or anyway very much Plan B or even Z. It needs careful negotiation and high levels of compromise to make this very different dynamic to parents and small children work.
We all had other plans. They saw themselves decorating their first home; we may have intended to sell the family house that was going to become too big. We certainly had other plans for the money that is now helping our offspring. (A recent survey estimates that some parents spend £47,000 on each adult child, a figure that may include help to get them on the property ladder.)
But those plans now have a dreamlike quality and most of us are just happy to be able to support our children, to give them a haven while they try to build themselves a future. I now wonder whether the idea of most 25-year-olds having their own place was a fantasy of Mr Barratt the builder. Flexible family houses lived in by different generations is exactly what they are for. It is only our expectations that have changed – and must change again as we welcome home a slightly depressed 30-year-old, boost the router and rewrite the house rules.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the kids who are coming home to roost; so too are the first verdicts from our children’s generation on us, their parents. Our Philip Larkin moment has arrived. Julie Walters is giving a barnstorming performance at the National Theatre as an old hippie who abandoned her young children to pursue enlightenment in India. In The Last of the Haussmans, she is back, dying of cancer in a big, crumbling house with her angry, neurotic children in attendance, reluctantly pandering to her whims. The play is full of sharp one-liners, and Walters plays one of those funny and demanding characters who suck all the air out of the room: she flirts with the poolboy and refuses to acknowledge the anger that is crippling her children. Idealistic but irresponsible, she represents the legacy we are leaving our children which, in this play, is ambivalent at best.
Another new work, Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, recently looked at the same intergenerational problem and reached a much crueller conclusion. And the TV series White Heat tracked the lives of some Baby Boomers from student days to the funeral of the first of them. In all this work, it is, yes, property that triggers the intergenerational action. And most of the writers reach the same conclusion as Philip Larkin, so I’m afraid we must brace ourselves for an artistic going-over. Just remember Oscar Wilde: ‘Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.’
The magnificent Nora Ephron made me wish desperately to become a writer. Unfortunately, she said everything I ever wanted to say with such wit, freshness and directness that I put down my pen. Apart from her brilliant film scripts, it is her essays that I most admire. ‘We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy and the era when happiness was a dry martini and now we have come to the era when happiness is “knowing what your uterus looks like”.’
She had the best lines on feminism and nailed how women feel about ageing. As she wrote in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman: ‘Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.’
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