OPINION: We’ve all seen it in the movies: overgrown "kidults" living at home while their parents pick up their dirty laundry, cook their meals and vacuum around their unmade bed.
This narrow portrayal of what modern-day multigenerational households look like is also found in newspapers worldwide. Names like “mummy’s boys”, “gen why bother moving out”, “kippers” and “gestaters” are used to describe this supposedly dependent generation who won’t leave the comfort of the family home.
Since we began our research four years ago, however, we have found that different generations of the same family live together in one household for a whole range of reasons. This results in a great diversity of outcomes.
These stories of different drivers and outcomes, along with findings from several related Australian studies, are retold in our new book, Multigenerational Family Living.
In the book, we debunk a series of myths about multigenerational households. With around one in five Australians living in multigenerational households since at least the mid-1980s, it’s about time we moved beyond the stereotypes.
Myth #1: Kids won’t become ‘independent’
If one only paid attention to media reports, it’d be easy to think that multigenerational households in modern-day Australia come about solely because young adults won’t fly the nest. While there is some truth in this, there are other reasons, and combinations of reasons, that lead multiple generations of adult family members to live together.
Among the 392 respondents to our survey, “adult children yet to leave home” was only the third-most-common driver. Finance was the most common.
Finance, however, can encompass many things.
Survey results, Author provided
Financial constraints can come about for a wide range of structural reasons. These include an increase in attainment of tertiary (and even postgraduate) qualifications, workforce casualisation and the unaffordability of housing, whether buying or renting.
These constraints often encourage the younger generation to delay leaving the parental home. However, we also found examples of adult children paying their parents’ mortgages and buying homes together to manage housing costs within the family.
Changes in government policies and priorities can also have impacts on people’s decisions about their living arrangement. The withdrawal of government support – such as changes in the Australian child, aged and disability care sectors – increases the pressures on family members to take care of each other.
There have been reports of grandparents moving across town to be closer (or to live with) their grandchildren so they can provide child care during the day.
Likewise, some of our participants said they invited their elderly parents to live with them so they could take care of them because professional aged care facilities were unaffordable or undesirable. “Care arrangement support” was the second-most-common driver for multigenerational living.
Myth #2: It’s something migrants do
There is a lot of literature about how common multigenerational living is elsewhere, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Southern Europe.
While more than one in three (34.9%) Australian residents born in North Africa and the Middle East lived in multigenerational households in 2011, only one in six (15.7%) born in Northwest Europe (e.g. the UK) did so.
Custom 2011 Census data. Image: Alec Gelota, Author provided
Certainly, there is a cultural element to living arrangement decisions. Yet our analysis shows that three-quarters of people who lived in multigenerational households in Australia in 2011 were born here or elsewhere in Oceania.
Myth #3: Live-at-home kidults take advantage of parents
One of the bigger gripes about multigenerational living is that not everyone pitches in.
Lyn Craig and Abigail Powell found that while adult children do pitch in and help out with chores, these efforts don’t really help their parents all that much, particularly their mothers.
The reasons are a mix of adult children doing chores for themselves (such as doing their own laundry or cooking their own meals), instead of communal sharing, and of culturally imbued ideas about who should be responsible for groceries, cooking and gardening.
Survey results, Author provided
Complaints about chores, however, pale in comparison to those about lack of privacy in the family home. This is the result of a combination of family members not respecting personal boundaries but also of many contemporary housing designs (open-plan living, for instance) that are not suitable for multigenerational needs.
As Bruce Judd discusses in his chapter, some older housing models, including the resurgence of granny flats, may offer better outcomes to people who want to live together in multigenerational homes.
What does it all mean?
Despite the media and some academic spheres giving this household form more attention, there is still relatively little known about it, and particularly the experiences of those who choose to live in them. As this journalist realised, there are pros and cons to multigenerational living, just as there are pros and cons to living alone.
International policy recommendations are advocating for more diverse housing products to house our ever-changing household forms. This includes encouraging people “to share our homes more with other generations and encourage greater intergenerational living”.
To devise the most practical policies do this effectively, we must have a greater understanding of the outcomes for different members within the household.
Edgar Liu, Research Fellow at City Futures Research Centre, UNSW.
Hazel Easthope, Senior Research Fellow, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation and can be republished for free, online or in print, under the Creative Commons licence. See the republishing guidelines.