Crowded house: extended families make a come-back

June 3, 2013
multi-generation chines

The three generations lived in the same house in harmony, or so it seemed. European migrants, they appeared to exemplify the ideal extended family. But when the woman-in-the-middle took me to the door to say goodbye, she whispered so the others wouldn’t hear: “I never expected them to live so long.”

She was referring to her parents-in-law. They were both 100 years-old. She and her husband were in their 70s. Her daughter, who lived in the basement quarters, was in her 40s. All her adult life, the woman-in-the-middle had lived in a multi-generation household; and now, she admitted guiltily, she was just a bit tired.

The multi-generation household – comprising two or more generations of related adults living under one roof – is making a come-back. For example, in Sydney one in four people, or one million, live in such households. The number has increased by 57 per cent between 1981 and 2011 when average population growth was 38 per cent. In the rest of Australia the growth is significant if less dramatic. The ramifications are profound. Many women in their 50s and 60s are working harder at an age when their own mothers were empty nesters with time on their hands. Many mature-aged men are tied down by family obligations at an age when their fathers were liberated grey nomads.

The main reason for the growth is adult children (aged 18 and over) living at home with Mum and Dad. They’re staying on while studying and saving. Ex-patriate offspring are being driven back to the nest by the economic recession overseas. Divorced and separated children are seeking home as a haven. But also elderly parents are being taken in by the women and men in the middle. The number of people aged 75-plus living in multi-generational households has more than doubled since 1986.

But who is really dependent on whom in these households? Is the story, as we so often hear it from the media, a one-way exchange with all the benefits flowing from the middle to the young and the old?  Does the story of this cultural shift boil down to young adults sponging off parents, and the helpless elderly sucking up the care? Two academics from the University of NSW suspect the reality may be more complex.

Dr Edgar Liu and Dr Hazel Easthope from the City Futures Research Centre are surveying Australians who live in a multi-generational household. (They provided me with the census figures quoted above). At this early stage the vignettes that have emerged from their survey indicate a stew of mixed motives and experiences. Money is definitely a factor. The acronym KIPPERS has arisen for good reason to describe a distinct group – Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings. “But there’s a lot more going on than the money,” Dr Easthope says.

For example, adult children who live with a solo parent can feel protective and reluctant to abandon them to loneliness, she said. Cultural factors also play a part. “I love it. It is my culture!” wrote one survey respondent. Another wrote of the companionship: “Always someone to talk to, always active, always fun!!” For another, a sense of the “generational contract” was important: “Being able to say to myself that I assisted my son and his wife even if there was some issues for me personally.” And looking after adult children with disabilities is a reality that shouldn’t be forgotten: “My son has a disability – schizophrenia. My daughter with Down Syndrome lived with me until her death last year at 55 years.” As well, as a respondent wrote: “Being able to provide a safe and supportive home for my ageing parents” is an important theme.

The benefits can flow in surprising ways. For example, a divorced woman with children was happy to have her father live with her for the help he offered with picking the children up from school, doing the shopping, and contributing to the finances. On the other hand, another respondent felt trapped at home with her parents who were close to retirement age but had not paid off their mortgage. “It’s possible I will have to take over repaying it and be the main financial head of the household….thus meaning I will never be able to leave home again and have an independent life…”

In multi-generational households there are pros and cons. Benefits include the companionship, care and support, and financial sharing. Drawbacks include noise, balancing the needs of elderly parent and spouse, lack of privacy, and social stigma. A respondent wrote of never being “able to have a social life in the house due to the awkwardness of parents and my grandmother around.”  Then there is the issue my 70-year-old woman-in-the-middle alluded to: doing it all. “I end up doing all the work,” said a respondent with an adult son. “More washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, etc,” said another. A third living with older parents said, “I feel like I’m doing everything without the help of the rest of my siblings.”

With more migrants arriving from Asian and Middle-East countries, where extended family life is strong, and housing prices no kinder to the young, the trend is likely to continue. It has implications for policies ranging from housing size to aged care service delivery. So it’s important to get behind the stereotypes to understand what’s really happening in multi-generation households. If more than one generation of adults in your family live together you might like to contribute to the research by filling in the survey here. You can also read a background essay here.

Please tell me about your experiences by clicking on ‘comments.’

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