the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@gmail.com

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.

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