December 1, 2020

Throughout the course of this pandemic, the Government has wielded many a blunt instrument, of which Matt Hancock’s “Don’t kill your gran” message was perhaps the bluntest. Yet this slogan, directed at young super-spreaders, spoke to a little-remarked upon truth about British life in the 21st century: family life is on the up, and stronger than ever.

This runs counter to the long-held and entrenched narrative that in Britain family is in decline. Its preservation was a cause for moral conservatives from Mary Whitehouse to Margaret Thatcher in the final three decades of the 20th century, worried that the permissive 1960s had triggered a loosening of values and the breakdown of the family, with rising levels of divorce and teen pregnancy.

But tell anyone under 25 of the moral battles of the Eighties and they may well switch off, so alien is it to their experience. In fact, contrary to fears that the family would wither, the opposite has happened over the past 20 years, with a quiet revolution taking place within Britain’s homes. Not only has there been a massive decrease in teenage pregnancy, as prayed for by social conservatives, and a drop in divorce rates, but a more fundamental strengthening of the family has taken place, too.

As the state has withdrawn and the housing market has become dysfunctional, more and more of us have invested in the family, creating a new culture of dependency between parent and offspring.

Britain has often been contrasted with our Mediterranean counterparts, with their trestle tables full of family. We Anglo-Saxons, supposedly, are inherently more individualistic — more likely to strike out on our own, move far from home. Historically that has been the case, but in fact, 40% of children starting primary school live fewer than 15 minutes away from their maternal grandparents. And as the cost of nursery and childminding has rocketed, grandparents have become increasingly valuable, saving parents an estimated £16 billion by providing informal childcare. During lockdown, thousands of dual-income couples struggled to care for their children without the support of now-isolated grandparents, revealing how increasingly dependent we are on our relatives.

In recent years, Britain has mirrored the rest of the Western world in shifting its economic model from the nuclear to the extended family. A third of UK households — around nine million in total — are now multi-generational (classified as more than one adult generation living under one roof). Grannexes”, to use the neologism, are increasingly popular; some 5% of UK households are already equipped with such a space, and an additional 7% say they plan to add one. The reciprocal benefits are obvious, and if you had space for a pram, why not a wheelchair?

For an ageing society, filial responsibility is vital; in a pandemic, of course it may prove fatal. One thread of research by demographers at Oxford suggests that early death rates were much higher in those countries that have a large proportion of multi-generational homes. It is thought to be one reason why we have seen higher than average infection rates among Asian communities.

Politicians have been scratching their heads for the past decade trying to fix the social care crisis, and the scale of the cost is daunting, but most elderly care comes not from private or state organisations but from families themselves — worth an estimated £57 billion of their time and money. The majority of these carers are of course women — daughters and daughters-in-law — and one-fifth expect to have to leave their jobs to care for an adult relative. Some companies have started offering paid leave for those with such responsibilities, and eventually the state will begrudingly have to catch up.

But the contemporary boom in family values is better understood in our treatment of the young rather than the old. The “boomerang” children phenomenon — in which adult offspring remain in the family home well into adulthood — may reflect 30-something economic woes, but it is also testimony to the strength of familial relations. Britain is not unique in this respect. In Italy, 73% of male 18-34-year-olds still live at home, known as mammoni (“mama’s boys”), while in South Korea they are called “kangaroos”, forever in their parents’ pocket.

That younger generation are also proving far more conventional than their predecessors. According to the ONS, divorce rates for young people are at their lowest rate since 1973, while divorce is increasing for older people. And although young people also have lower marriage rates to start with, it remains a popular institution, nowhere more so than among same sex-couples.

The children of those marriages also see a lot more of their parents, especially their fathers, reflecting the changing nature of parental commitment over the past 40 years. As the fertility rate has halved since 1960, this has meant greater investment in our children. In 2012, mothers spent nearly an hour more each day looking after their kids than they did in 1965, despite the fact that the majority was now working. Fathers’ time with their children rose from 16 minutes a day to 59. A 2015 study by the University of Texas found that same-sex couples actually spent the most time with their kids, with gay dads spending as much time parenting as straight mums, and twice as much time as heterosexual fathers.

We are giving our kids not only more time, but more money. To have a child today is a 30-year financial commitment, as many older people are now learning: and parents now expect to be supporting their kids until they’re 29 (and even that might be optimistic). Parents are putting twice as much into their kids’ living costs as they are their own future retirement fund, perhaps assuming that it will all be paid back, one way or another.

These days, university open days are populated with over-excited parents, and tutors direct their “sales pitch” mostly at the grown-ups (unis know who their real customers are). Even employers are being forced to engage with mum and dad.; in 2018, over 20,000 parents took part in LinkedIn’s “Take your parents to work day” initiative, a strange modern twist on an older tradition.

What is most strikingly conservative is how well all the generations get along. Teenage rebellion is no more: Generation Z are more likely to see their parents as friends than as enemies, while a quarter of girls have been clubbing with their mums, something that would have been the stuff of nightmares to children of the 1980s. And although the 18-30 holiday market has struggled, the 18-70 market is booming: 79% of 20-30 year olds in the UK have taken a multi-generational holiday while one-fifth say they prefer holidaying with their parents than their mates.

But how many would go on such holidays with their parents if they were the ones paying? Families may enjoy hanging out more than they used to, but the trigger for this shift is changing economics, not changing values. Affluent millennials have been financially dependent on their parents like no other generation before them — for an education, a house deposit, a wedding, support with childcare and the family crash pad if it all goes wrong. The “Bank of Mum and Dad” is now the sixth largest mortgage lender in the UK. But how long can parents keep giving their kids so much? The next generation doesn’t have anything like their parents’ wealth.

The real divide within the under-40s demographic lies not between graduates and non-graduates but between those who can rely on the parental safety net and those who can’t. This is the new dependency culture: one where aspiration and opportunity is conditional on family support and there is little the market or the state can do to level the playing field.

Much of what the social conservatives of the 1980s craved has happened; and yet everything they said about the family was wrong. The reinvestment in the family unit is not down to the reinforcement of moral or religious responsibilities, but economic interdependence. Family values, especially for the young, means more parental support than ever — with the expectation that they’ll take filial responsibilities seriously, as our society ages. Both now and in the future, relatives simply cannot afford to live apart. The family has become society’s guarantor, which even in a global pandemic, is both a curse and a source of relief.