February 28, 2024

Multicoloured climbing holds dot the ceiling of Ben’s workshop in the garage adjoining his home. Tools are stacked in plastic boxes in floor-to-ceiling cupboards and his mountaineering and ice climbing gear fills every spare space. The workshop and its ample storage are among the reasons the 23-year-old architecture student remains in his parent’s home well past the age that previous generations may have moved out. There is, he says, “no real reason” to leave.

“I know with the rent situation that I wouldn’t be able to afford a place that has a garage I could put a workshop in. It’s just not possible.”

If he moved out, he’d be coming home all the time anyway, he says, “in which case it becomes kind of pointless”.

Ben standing by a door
Ben’s parents are happy for him to stay at home, so long as he doesn’t ‘stray from the given path’. Photograph: The Guardian

Over the second half of the 20th century, research has found the average age of leaving the parental home remained relatively stable. But now, with rental costs now increasing across Australian cities and many students unable to afford the basics even with the help of youth allowance, living at home into adulthood is becoming more common.

Census data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies released this year shows the proportion of those living at home has increased in every age bracket from 19 to 30 between 2006 and 2021. The proportion of 19-year-olds living with their parents saw the biggest increase, from 63% in 2006 to 73% in 2021, followed by those in the 20-to-24 age group, which saw a five-point increase in men and seven-point increase in women over the same period.

‘I didn’t think they’d be coming back’

During the pandemic, part-time medical receptionist Jodie, 30, initially moved into a rental in her home town, Tuross Head on the New South Wales south coast, after living in Sydney. Before long, she moved back in with her parents down the road to avoid spending all her money on rent.

“There’d be people out there who are a bit judgmental … but a lot of people are understanding. I haven’t felt judged by anyone – except [by] myself,” she says.

Jodie works part-time and is studying to be a nurse. This study-work mix, which limits her income, creates an incentive to bunk in and pay $100-$200 a week in board to her parents when she can.

Jodie’s mother, Tiz, says the door is always open for her children, and having her daughter back has been “wonderful”.

“I didn’t think they would be coming back. I thought they would have their own lives, their own families, but it’s not meant to be at this stage,” says Tiz.

“I left home when I was about 20, 21. I had an Italian upbringing and my parents did not like the idea of me moving out of home.”

She believes it was easier in her youth. “These days I see kids really struggle. So as soon as they started putting up rents, I said to Jodie, ‘Come back home.’ Wait until you’ve got a bit more money saved up then do what you want to do.”

‘You fall into old habits’

Dr Laurence Steinberg, author of You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University in Philadelphia, says the trend of adult children remaining for longer in – or returning to – the family home is is likely to rise if the gap between housing costs and salaries continue to widen.

Multigenerational homes are part of many cultural traditions; a 2021 survey found that in Portugal and Croatia the average age young people left the family home was 33, followed closely by Slovakia and Greece at 30. But Steinberg says it can create “uncharted territory” for parents in countries such as Australia and the US, as parents find their children stay for longer, pushing the idea of an empty nest and perceived rites of passage to independence further and further away.

“A big reason that difficulties arise is that the living arrangement is unexpected and seen as ‘abnormal’,” says Steinberg. “I don’t think the issues are as fraught in countries like Italy, where it is considered normal for grown children to live at home.”

Francesca, 28, moved back into her family home early this year with her partner. In a large house, and with different working hours, she and her mother find it easy to give each other the space they need, she says, while also enjoying being able to watch TV together.

But while Francesca and her partner are using the opportunity to live rent-free to save for their wedding and a place of their own, being back in the family home has meant returning to some of the patterns of her adolescence.

“I guess I was worried about a level of regression,” says Francesca. “You fall into old habits when you move back home … but because we have lived out of home, we know that we can do it.”

Bruna enjoys having her daughter at home as an adult, she says, though sometimes feels this regression too when she is called on to do the kind of parenting duties associated with having a child in their teens, not 20s.

“Sometimes I think there is that expectation that we can just drop her off at the station,” she says. “Which is fine, it’s just that I don’t know if that sort of thing encourages her to get up and get ready for work later than she might.”

Privacy, boundaries and the value of not sharing

For the parent and child in these homes, while the line between parenting and independence can be difficult, it is the lack of privacy that is the most common complaint in multigenerational homes according to Dr Edgar Liu, a senior research fellow at the University of NSW.

For Jodie, who describes herself as “a bit of a ratbag” as a teenager, she happily coexists in a large house with her parents. “They were never strict, but as an adult … I’m just on their level,” she says.

“I guess the only negatives would be the lack of privacy. They always want to know what I’m doing at all hours of the day and are always asking me questions.”

Liu’s research into the rise of multigenerational living, conducted from 2010-16 and based on 25 years of census analysis, found that one in every three family households – or about 6m homes in Australia today – would be considered multigenerational. Liu also found not only are people in their 20s leaving home later, grandparents are also joining the household, bringing up the average age of those in the family home.

But since Liu’s research, the pandemic has shifted the situation again. Not only are more young adults – whose education and employment were drastically impacted – staying in the family home longer, but the shift to working from home has exacerbated points of friction in shared households.

“Housing design is not appropriate for this kind of arrangement,” says Liu. “In the last 10 or so years we’ve also switched a lot towards open-plan living … everyone knows that when you all have to sit around the dining table and work or study from home together, it’s a pretty difficult situation when there’s not a door that you can close.”

The tendency for young people to “push the line a lot further” when with family than when living with flatmates can also contribute.

“We think that because it’s a family member, it’s OK for us to get away with more,” he says. “So we might go into someone’s room without knocking or go and borrow something if they’re not [around] without telling them first.”

With respect for boundaries, sharing the load, and a degree of financial independence (like pitching in for groceries) critical to a harmonious household, Ben says one thing his family doesn’t often share helps.

Ben sitting on some steps
‘If it’s in the cupboard, it’s everyone’s’ … Ben says the family home has become ‘a lot more like a share house’. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“I know people really like sitting down for dinner, that’s a thing in some families,” he says. “But I actually think it’s a real positive that we don’t do that.”

The expectation to meet every night, he says, would cause a lot of pressure. “Then you always have to interact about that and say, ‘I can’t make it to dinner tonight.’”

But even though they only sit down to eat together about once a month or with extended family, the pantry is open to all. “It’s become a lot more like a share house where you just kind of fend for yourself and you buy your own food,” Ben says.

“There is also an unspoken rule in the house: if it’s in the cupboard, it’s everyone’s. If you really want to keep it, you hide it.”

‘The whole independence thing’

Despite such arrangements, Steinberg says the stigma around living at home as an adult is still pervasive. “The movie was called Failure to Launch, not Congratulations on Living with your Parents,” he says. “Americans, and I imagine people in Great Britain and Australia, value independence … as an indicator of maturity.

“I think this is lessening as living with one’s parents is becoming more common, but there is still a tendency to look at young people who are living at home, especially after age 25, as less mature or capable than their peers who live on their own.”

Many who remain at home while their friends move out around them are still embarrassed to admit they live with their parents. Ben hopes to one day be able to move out, preferably on his own, but for now he stands firm on his choice to stay.

“The whole independence thing … I think it’s a very modern concept, because families used to always stay together a lot more,” he says.

“Mum is very close with her parents and when she moved overseas, it was a big thing. We talk about independence a lot but what does that really mean? It just means they’re [your parents] not talking to you as much.”

For now, Ben is grateful to be able to stay with parents who let him mostly go about his days without intervention. That, he expects, would change if they had any concerns about him. “If I start straying away from the given path they hope my life would go on … which could happen in the next few years, we don’t know!”

He laughs. “At the moment, it works.”

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