THERE’S a secret in the suburban back yard. It’s big, about 40sq m. It’s official, although not well known. A lot of it came from Ikea but some is from Aunt Joy. And it’s probably annoying the neighbours, at least until they get the same idea. It’s the granny flat and it’s hot in urban planning. The little house in the back yard is popping up across the continent but particularly in crowded cities. In NSW, for instance, it was the fastest growing form of residential development in 2011-12 and much of the action was in the city.
The granny flat is an endearing part of urban planning. It has gone in and out of fashion for decades but governments have a soft spot for it because it is a neat solution to that perennial social problem, what to do with granny. But the secret in the back yard isn’t granny. The secret is revealed when you open the sliding door and discover that Pearl Jam is blasting out the lounge/kitchen, there’s a couch surfer from Sweden on the daybed and a pile of washing waiting to be lugged up to the main house. The secret in the back yard is that junior has moved in. Or rather, that when junior moved out he didn’t make it far, just to the bottom of the garden.
Housing has always reflected our lives. It’s like the clothing of our social system, showing off our aspirations and habits and disguising our problem areas. And the reinvention of the granny flat tells us the story of our changing relationships. Sure they’re called granny flats, although in Victoria they’re officially called dependent person’s units and in NSW they’re called secondary occupancy dwellings. But they are now used to house our ageing children, not our ageing parents.
If you’re in any doubt, look at the statistics. The rate of aged parents living with their children is about a quarter of the number of adult children living with their parents. So, 6.9 per cent of oldies live with children but almost a quarter of 20 to 34-year-old children live with their parents. What’s more, most of the development applications for these units are in the suburbs that have the greatest number of adult children living at home. So the pressure is on parents of adult children to accommodate the next generation rather than the previous generation. That would be because 20-something people are frail, lonely and frightened at night and 75-plus people are robust, have more than 400 Facebook friends and are out on the town all night.
Perhaps not. But you get the gist. Somehow, we feel obliged to house our young people well past the age when they can drive, drink and fight wars, but we don’t feel obliged to house our old people when they can no longer drive, have been told not to drink and have memories of a war that was a half-century ago.
We have, in short, socialised the responsibility for older people and privatised respons- ibility for younger people. We send one generation to state-sanctioned residential care and the other generation to Ikea to stock up on flat-pack furniture.
Obviously, you can make a rational argument for the kids-in-the-back-yard phenomenon. Young people don’t have capital, they haven’t got secure income, they take longer to enter careers, they need to be near mum’s laundry and free WiFi. But the arguments are more rationale than rational.
If we’re keeping our kids closer for longer, it means we like living with our kids. It means we feel responsibility for them for longer. It may even mean we find it hard to let them go. We are invested in our children even if we have divested ourselves of our parents.
We’re not alone. Across the world, adult children are in bedrooms where they once posted My Little Pony posters. It’s the global financial crisis aftermath, they say. It’s the flatpack generation, they say. It’s the new normal, they say, as they invent nasty expressions for them — parasite singles, basement dwellers, nesthockers (in Germany) and bamboccioni (in Italy). We may not have invented an expression for them, although we could think of a few — backyard bandits, cuckoo tenants, superannuation squatters. But the statistics are telling us we’d better get used to it. They also point to a perverse future. At the moment only 6.9 per cent of old people live with their children, but in 50 years that statistic might be up to 25 per cent because the blighters will still be there squatting with the next generation.