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Half a million adults still live with their parents, and many feel their dreams have been stolen from them. In this extract from his book Gaffs, Rory Hearne warns that this aspect of the housing crisis is too often overlooked
Póilín Nic Géidigh: ‘The pandemic turned my life on its head’. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Póilín Nic Géidigh at home in Gortahork, Co Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Joanne Phibbs and her son
Gaffs by Rory Hearne
Locked out of buying or renting their own home by the housing crisis, Generation Stuck at Home are living in their parents’ or relatives’ home. They feel as if they are not real adults, their lives are on hold, their aspirations and dreams slipping away as they desperately try to get a home of their own.
The numbers are staggering. One person in 10 is an adult living in their parents’ home. That’s half a million people — more than the number of households in the entire private rental sector. These are the unseen generation in the housing crisis. They are not teenagers — they are adults in their twenties, thirties, forties, and most are working. There are 350,000 young adults aged between 20 and 35 living at home with their parents. Moving out of the family home is a key life step to achieve independence, but it is being hugely delayed for them. The average age of leaving home has now risen to 28. Back in the early 1990s, most people in Ireland aged 28 owned their own home.
No one can deny the benefits of living at home. It can help with positive relationships between parents and children, and encourage intergenerational support and understanding. It can provide much-needed childcare support and family care. It can provide care and support for parents, and help with loneliness. It can even provide benefits for the climate — it is the most efficient use of buildings and housing to have multi-generations living under one roof.
But it can be extremely stressful, with increased tension between parents and children, and between siblings. The bottom line is that it is not the life most adults want to be living. A survey found that 93pc of 21- to 30-year-olds living at home said they would “prefer to be living separately” from their parents. There is no ambiguity in that statistic. It makes sense. At home they are still treated like children. They cannot develop into a full adult with control over their life. More than half (52pc) of those living with their parents said their parents will not treat them like an adult until they move out; 70pc said they don’t have enough independence, like being able to have friends around or even choosing what food to cook.
Huge parts of people’s lives are out of their control when they are living at home — how they live, who they live with, having relationships, staying out late, having friends over, even having kids of their own. It is a challenge to just be who you are and who you might want to be.
The three basic psychological requirements for wellbeing are autonomy (feeling a sense of choice and control), competence (mastering one’s environment) and relatedness (feeling connected to others). Being in your late twenties, thirties and even forties and living in a box room or sleeping in the living room clearly has negative consequences for your sense of control over your life, your sense of personal agency and therefore your mental health and overall wellbeing. It can delay the transition to adulthood, affecting independence, self-esteem and identity, and leading to anxiety about the future.
For those in their mid-thirties and early forties, it can feel hopeless. They feel their lives have been stolen from them. Adult children feel infantilised. Those living at home feel a huge amount of shame.
We hear less about this experience than about renters because people stuck at home are reluctant to speak publicly, not only because they feel ashamed or embarrassed, but also because of concern for their parents. It’s very difficult to speak out about their situation because they feel it makes them seem ungrateful, it could hurt their parents’ feelings, or make their parents feel overly worried about them.
This is a major problem, because their housing needs are not being adequately considered in public debates on the housing crisis or in government housing plans and policy.
I was really struck by this when I invited people to share their housing crisis stories anonymously. The response that surprised me most was the people who were adults and living at home with their parents who said they had felt so alone until they read the stories of other people in the same situation. Even for a short while, it lifted them out of their darkness and helped them to feel that they were not on their own. Their emotions are complicated by the fact that they feel grateful, and thankful, and “extremely lucky” to have a family who will allow them, and can facilitate them, to stay living at home into adulthood.
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But that story needs to be changed. People have a right to complain, and to expect a home of their own. They have a right and a need to speak out about the challenges and difficulties of their housing crisis and for it to be given proper consideration in the media and in policy and politics.
There is also an unseen precariousness and insecurity in this situation. People are dependent on the kindness and goodwill of their parents and family, and on the maintenance of those relationships, for a home. So they too are living a precarious life. If that relationship breaks down, they are potentially homeless.
The parent-child dynamic is always there too. You are always their child, they are always your parents. The adult-parent relationship is a very different one from the teenage-parent relationship. It can be hugely stressful, even when adults move out and live their own life. There can be a lot of tension, even though most families get on well. But past a certain age, the impacts just get bigger.
As one person in their late twenties told me: “There are massive personal implications, in terms of your own development, the relationships that you can have in your life, just your sense of self and identity.” They summed it up when they said: “Being told you need to brush your teeth at the end of the day at age 27 is just not where you want to be in life.” How long can young adults be expected to put up with questions, however well intended or innocent, such as: “Where were you last night?”, “What time did you come home?”, “Will you be out late?”
Some parents think there must be something their children are doing wrong. But Generation Stuck at Home are doing everything they can and they still can’t get a gaff because housing is unaffordable and unavailable. They can’t do any more. Yet you still hear the nonsensical financial advice — borrow your parents’ Netflix password, avoid socialising, stop spending money on food — this is what you can do to save and become a homeowner. People are doing it all but it is still not enough. They have multiple jobs to try to progress and save and get a mortgage so that they can finally have a home of their own.
There is also the personal shame when they meet other people, such as potential partners, when they tell them where they live. There is a stigma when your answer to “Where do you live?” is “At home with my parents”.
Having romantic relationships while living at home with your parents is a real challenge. Forming and maintaining romantic relationships can be incredibly difficult and complex at the best of times, and you need the space and time to develop yourself and develop together.
Romantic relationships often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, and young adulthood is commonly a time of exploration, moving between transient romantic encounters and devoted relationships. But when you don’t have your own gaff, a space to call your own, to craft in your own way, it’s harder to develop relationships. How can you when you are under the watchful eye of your parents at an age when you are supposed to be branching out and discovering yourself? It puts people off having relationships at all because they feel they just could not bring someone home; they don’t have their own personal space to share with a partner. So their life is stilted, reduced in possibility and expression.
And where do couples have sex? If both are living at home with their parents, figuring out how to cultivate the physical side of a relationship becomes a logistical nightmare. That question was asked on an online message board. One respondent said: “What do you do if you are on Tinder? Say I’m available, but dependent on when my mother goes out to Tesco for the weekly shop?” Another said: “I’m 25 and yes, the struggle is real. Especially if you have fairly old parents like I do… my mum would be getting the holy water out.”
Other suggestions included booking a hotel, renting a car for a few hours, or telling your mother you’re watching Netflix and the movie will be quite loud so she might be happier reading in the garden. Another suggested making sure to use a downstairs room, as it’s safer for an escape if you need to jump out of the window!
Who knew the housing crisis would be stopping a generation from having sex? Ireland is one of the most progressive countries in the world, and our young people are the most open generation Ireland has ever had. But their basic ability to have sex is restricted by the housing crisis. They can only express that sexual liberation if they have a place of their own to do it.
Beyond the fundamental human need and desire for sexual relationships, it also has pretty obvious demographic consequences for the future of the country. Younger people who want children but don’t feel secure in their living arrangements are either delaying having children, or won’t have them at all. This will lead to a fall in the birth rate and lower rates of new household formation.
For example, one couple who were sharing an apartment before the pandemic were paying €2,000 a month in rent. They are in their mid-thirties, and just want their own space to live their own lives. They felt they had no option but to move back to each other’s respective parents’ homes. They now have a “hopeless feeling” about their housing situation, and are delaying a family that they “so desperately want” because they can’t find a home. For them, moving back with their parents “feels like regression”. They see each other only at weekends, after being in a relationship for five years.
The Growing Up in Ireland study of 20-year-old Irish people asked them to rate how concerned they were about a range of social and political issues including terrorism, climate change, racism and gender inequality. Access to housing was ranked as their greatest concern. The research found that there is “an upper limit on how long parents and their adult children are content” with living at home. It pointed out that “there will be increased pressure on young adults to find independent accommodation” at some point, and wondered what the consequences for everyone will be “if they cannot find something suitable or affordable”.
It found that a substantial proportion of young adults who were currently in an exclusive relationship expected to be cohabiting with a partner by the time they were 25. This suggests that many people in their mid-twenties — possibly moving out of the parental home for the first time — will be looking for accommodation that is suitable for couples rather than single-person apartments or sharing with roommates.
That’s an important point given the current emphasis on accommodation for single people. Having children requires having more than one bedroom and it requires a long-term secure home. The Irish rental system doesn’t give that. Younger people who don’t feel secure in their living arrangements are delaying having children, or won’t have them at all.
Gaffs by Rory Hearne
This is an edited extract from Gaffs by Rory Hearne (HarperCollins)
Póilín Nic Géidigh is 25 and lives at home in Co Donegal with her mother
Póilín Nic Géidigh at home in Gortahork, Co Donegal. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Póilín had been living in Dublin independently for four years while studying for a degree in graphic design from TUD. She was then accepted into a master’s in NUIG in 2019 but was told that the course was to be conducted online because there of the small number in her class.
“I decided that’s fine and I’ll move home and save money,” she says. “I said I’d go to Galway once a month and meet my classmates, but then the pandemic hit.”
Nic Géidigh had planned to obtain a J1 grad visa and go to New York and had until September 2021 to do so, but the pandemic was still causing issues, she was unsure of her options.
“By that point, I had developed an anxiety about leaving the country,” she says. “When you are home for so long, you get used to it. And so many of my plans didn’t work out. The pandemic turned my life on its head so I was afraid more than anything. Living at home means you move away from independence and it is kind of terrifying to go out on your own again.”
There are many positives to be found in living at home. “I’m actually really happy with my life at the moment,” she says. “I have a fantastic relationship with my mum and my sister lives close by. If you take family connections out of the equation, my mum is like a roommate. We share making the dinners, and we sit down together in the evenings and watch shows. It is lovely. Some people don’t get on with their parents or they aren’t welcome back at home. I am so lucky to have this.”
Nic Géidigh works for Raidió na Gaeltachta and she realises she is one of the lucky ones. “So many of my friends have now moved away, back to cities and back to their jobs,” she says. “I’m lucky in the sense that I love the job I have now and I love the people I work with — and it is in my home county.”
With a partner living in Galway, there are plans to settle elsewhere but Nic Géidigh is not putting a timeline on it. “I have been scorned for making plans in the past, so I rarely look too far into the future,” she says. “It is a temporary measure but I am enjoying myself and happy. That’s a good enough reason to stay for the meantime.”
— Édaein O’Connell
Joanne Phibbs is 31 and lives with her partner, her son and her parents in Co Kildare
Joanne Phibbs and her son
"I always say that I am blessed,” says Joanne Phibbs. “I could be in a lot of very different situations. We are very lucky.” She lives with her parents, partner and son in Co Kildare. Until 2018, her small family had been renting but the landlord decided to sell.
“I had a newborn at the time so it wasn’t the easiest thing to hear or deal with,” she says. “We found out it was the council buying the home and we asked if there was any way we could continue the lease with them but they said no. We were paying €1,100 a month at the time in Naas. The prices now are a lot different and scarier.
“Whenever we do look or think about moving, the prices have jumped considerably,” she says. “In essence, we were pushed out of the rental market and it’s impossible to get back in.”
Initially, moving home with her parents was a difficult decision. “Obviously, I had and liked my independence,” she says. “I wanted to show I could do it but then we were looking at €1,800 for a one-bed apartment. We couldn’t afford it.”
However, Phibbs says her situation could be a lot worse. “My parents are delighted. They get to spend so much time with the first grandson of the family. They would love for us to have our own place but they understand how difficult it is. We all get on so well which makes it easier too.”
The family plan to build their own home but Phibbs is cautious. “With the price of everything going up, it is best to take one step at a time.”
— Édaein O’Connell
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