As people live longer, pension pots shrink and more families find themselves caring not only for their own children but also parents and grandparents, some sort of communal living seems inevitable for all of us.
This represents a huge sea change in how we live in the UK. For people born after the Second World War, the nuclear family was often the norm. People moved out of the parental home as soon as they could and many moved away from their home town. The ubiquitous “modern executive detached” became the home of choice for the aspirant middle classes. People expected older relatives to move to sheltered housing or care homes when they became frail rather than move in with them. Children were often sent to nurseries or childminders. In other words, there was a certain autonomy between the generations.
But this is changing. As the populations ages at the same time as public finances are shot, more and more people are finding themselves responsible for caring for one or more sets of parents and grandparents who often live some distance away.
At the other end of the scale, many of today’s young adults are being supported by their parents whether by being helped out with a house deposit or school or university fees or even by providing childcare allowing them to work.
Finances are being squeezed every which way. Add to this, concerns about job security, pensions coming up short, high student debt and house prices outstripping the incomes of only the most affluent and the result is that families are under severe pressure.
So, is the answer to live together and share the burdens? Whilst there is a certain economic sense to clubbing together, there are many families to whom such an arrangement will be an anathema. Many will be reluctant to give up their own homes and hard won independence in this way. Many simply don’t get on well enough. Much of our current housing stock is not conducive to intergenerational living. Many modern homes are too small, cramped and inflexible. Larger homes are very expensive and may be unaffordable unless all the family members have money to put in the pot.
Another possibility is that people join together to buy a large house and live together as mutually supportive friends. This is a common aspiration amongst my contemporaries. This has the attraction of living with people you ostensibly like, although you would need to choose carefully. The friends with whom you partied in your 20s or shared school runs in your 30s are not necessarily the people to share your later years with. Whilst you might all move in with good intentions, what happens if you fall out or one person’s care needs or circumstances change dramatically? Do you boot them out or all club together to care for them?
Another alternative is the supportive community model, The Big Society idea which is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment (although no one yet has come up with a decent definition of what it means). Here communities, ie your street, your town become much more mutually supportive. For instance, people get together to support an elderly neighbour with shopping, cooking and cleaning. But this sort of activity would have to be heavily organised in order to be effective and it also relies on huge amounts of goodwill and people in the locality having sufficient spare time to volunteer .
Perhaps we should all move to retirement villages where the organisational structures are already in place? In the UK we have been slow to embrace this concept and it is certainly an unpopular proposition amongst my friends, based on maybe outdated notions of “Old People’s Homes”.
Ultimately we will all need to find an arrangement which suits our own families. But I cannot help but think that the days of the nuclear family are numbered. Community, if not the extended family, has to be the way forward.
What do you think? Do you agree?