I’ve never really considered multi-generational living. But when he was about 65, my dad asked me a question. As he was embarking on a new and peripatetic career he needed a London base. Could he come and live with us?
A part of me was tempted but I regret to say that another part recoiled. Might I lose some freedom, I wondered? Plus, he smoked evil-smelling cigars.
Nevertheless, for a short while it made us into a three-generation household, which put us bang on-trend. The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates there are 419,000 households spanning three or more generations and rising (up from around 325,000 in 2001), while insurance company Aviva found that multi-gen living rose by 32% between 2005-15.
Given the UK’s lack of space and ageing population the phenomenon will continue to grow, reckons the NHBC (National House Building Council) Foundation, which recently undertook a survey and a report advocating that 125,000 additional multigenerational homes per year should be built.
Before we get too excited, multi-generational living is often driven by necessity
It’s an even bigger story in the US where 19% of the population, 60.6m people, now lives with multiple generations – up from 12% in 1980 – with grans, granddads, children and parents all mucking in. It sounds idyllic.
Before we get too excited, multi-generational living in the UK is often driven by necessity.
“There are people who choose it for social reasons, but it’s mostly economic,” says Stephen Burke of United For All Ages, a UK charity that seeks to bring younger and older people together. “Much of it is about the cost of buying housing and sharing the costs of elder care and child care.”
That much can be seen by the way it has been boosted by the recession of 2008, soaring house prices and an ageing population. It’s a way to gain an economy of scale in a difficult market, and there’s another reason for its statistical rise: multi-generational living is often practised by immigrant communities.
There are said to be developmental advantages of having a grandparent around
Whatever the drivers, multi-generational living has lots of benefits. With old people in particular living in isolation – there are, astonishingly, 1.6m women of 75 and older living alone, often in houses that have outgrown them – there’s a chance to reintegrate them into extended family structures and avoid long and dutiful drives.
There are also said to be developmental advantages of having a grandparent around, such as higher outcomes for the children of single parents, and it can be a good fit for the 3.8m so-called ‘boomerang’ children between 21-34, many of whom have returned to live with their parents. Could multi-generational living could be the glue that sticks Broken Britain back together? The NHBC seems to think so, proposing that it could help grow our national “wellbeing”.
Multi-generational living isn’t new. In earlier times, most people lived in large family units, as they still do in the developing world and southern Mediterranean: in Italy most 18-34 year olds live with their parents (although they are disparagingly referred to as ‘bamboccione’ or ‘big babies’).
US Housebuilders have noticed the recent trend back towards the mega-family home
“Multigenerational living is the way people have always lived,” said John L. Graham, author of ‘All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living’. So even while it’s driven by austerity and rampant living costs, it’s a return to the interdependent extended family.
In the depressed US of 1940, a quarter of all US households were multi-generational.
This time there’s a chance to plan. Housebuilders have noticed the recent trend back towards the mega-family home and in the US, there’s a growth in properties with two master suites – to accommodate two first couples – and even a hybrid home called a ‘halfplex’, where an apartment is divided in two to offer semi-autonomy for related inhabitants. One ‘NextGen’ developer deploys the slogan, “For the family you’re raising and the family that raised you”.
It’s a long way from the ‘granny annexe’ of yore, stuck onto the end of a house as if an afterthought. And my own multi-generational life wouldn’t have been unusual either, as the average UK two-adult generation household contains three people in three bedrooms.
In California there’s a big debate about building ‘accessory structures’ to allow family members to live close by
“Multigenerational living offers a range of opportunities to house builders to design new homes with flexible layouts,” says the NHBC’s head of research and innovation Neil Smith. Sarah, who took part in the NHBC survey and lives alongside husband, parents and sons said: ” You’ve got privacy when you want it, you’ve got support.”
Given these benefits, the NHBC now thinks the UK is lagging behind. In California there’s a big debate about building ‘accessory structures’ to allow family members to live close by, but with their own space. Why not in the UK?
Multi-generational life all sounds rather lovely and Big Society-ish, with everyone helping out and being happy ever after. But are there potential downsides? Yes. First among them is a lack of privacy. What if you want to escape, like so many of us do at the age of 18?
There are disadvantages, according to one of my friends: “My mum listens to the TV unbearably loudly.”
“Ideally you want a mix of shared space and independent space,” says Stephen Burke.
“But that’s not always possible as most multigenerational households are small.” And a friend Eileen, who lives with her mother and daughter, has a particular beef that she didn’t anticipate: “My mum listens to the TV unbearably loudly.”
What to do? “I’d make sure each generation has their own space so they can have privacy when they need it,” says Carol Peett of West Wales Property Finders, who sees increasing numbers of families pooling resources for multi-generation piles. “The ideal properties are farmhouses with converted outbuildings.” And not all of us can afford them.
In the event, my own multi-generational living experiment lasted a couple of months. I didn’t lose any freedom and it was a great experience, if a bit claustrophobic. I’d do it again, but without those cigars. And – money permitting – I’d make sure I had my own outhouse.
• Consider drawing up a ‘prenup’ style document, covering the things that can go wrong and how necessities like cleaning will be apportioned
• Consider moving. In the NHBC survey, only 16% said their current house would be suitable.
• Find a place where everyone is happy – and consider planning laws if you hope to make changes
• Always think ahead, with regard to elderly parents’ health needs. Think about how existing medical conditions will progress
• If you are helping with childcare, agree how much you are really willing to do – otherwise you might get dumped on
• Think of transport – will you become the family taxi driver?
• If you’re able to redesign your home for multigen living, consider separate entrances and kitchens
• Think ahead to inheritance and shared assets
• Food – share meals or eat separately?