A huge social shift is happening that has barely been noticed, let alone understood. Earlier this month, the Office for National Statistics revealed data from the 2021 census about the number of adults in England and Wales living with their parents: 4.9 million of them, up nearly 15% on the figure for 2011. The fact that the stats were collected in the midst of the Covid crisis may suggest a blip, but the ONS is adamant that the rise “appears to be a continuing trend rather than a result of the pandemic”.
Ten years ago, it reported record levels of such living arrangements, and the latest numbers are even more striking. Men outnumber women by three to two. The share of 20- to 24-year-olds living in the family home is 51.2%, up from 44.5% 10 years ago, and for those aged 30 to 34, the figure is nearly 12%. Almost half of single-parent families now have adult children at home. In London, one in four households had at least one adult child in the home, and in five London boroughs, the average age of what the ONS calls “adult children living with their parents” is 26. The numbers in more rural places are often almost as remarkable: in Dorset, for example, that description applies to nearly 20% of the grownup population.
Clearly, all this highlights the cruelties of our housing crisis. Woven into the same picture is a higher education system that spits out twentysomethings already burdened with astronomical debt. The result is a kind of compulsory extended adolescence, which is now threatening to envelop even those starting their 40s, and is surely a big part of the huge downturn in younger people’s mental health. It also has big potential repercussions for an already-blighted economy, not least when it comes to people’s ability to be as mobile as modern employers often demand.
Over the past few weeks, housing has rightly moved into the political foreground. While the Conservatives squabble about their devotion to the green belt, Keir Starmer and his colleagues have been promising to restore the government’s binned targets for new homes, give first-time buyers priority on new houses built in their areas, and stop speculators based abroad from purchasing them. It has been good to hear him break one of politics’ most stupid taboos, and suggest that property prices need to fall in relation to people’s incomes. But a set of grimly familiar preferences and prejudices seem to sit under a lot of what he says, leaving millions of people unspoken for.
When politicians talk about new housing, they usually mean the kind of developments that now ring most British towns and cities: three- or four-bedroom starter homes, with a car in the drive, and a slide and swing in the back garden. To state the obvious, there is nothing wrong with that: millions of us crave the certainty and security associated with home ownership, and the collective British mind tends to think that houses embody those things in a way that other kinds of homes do not. The archetypal swing voter, moreover, is likely to either own a house, or to want to – which only deepens Westminster’s attachment to an imagined utopia of cul-de-sacs and crescents, full of people happily mortgaged to the hilt.
But where does that vision leave many of those people still living in the family home? What a lot of them need is housing that we never hear about: flats, suitable for single people, concentrated in and around towns and cities, and available for either reasonable prices – or, more urgently, genuinely affordable rents. An abundance of such places would not only help the young: it might also unblock a big chunk of the property market by attracting older couples and single people currently living in large dwellings, but prevented from moving by the unavailability of smaller properties. But who is building them?
Last year, the property-selling platform Unlatch revealed that over the previous 12 months, one-bedroom flats had accounted for just 6% of new homes, and that new-builds had fallen by 12% since 2017. The only housing innovations offered to young people seem to be cramped “microflats” with shared kitchens and communal workspaces, which basically offer indefinite studenthood. Even for people who can afford to buy a proper apartment, life is often ruined by England and Wales’s awful leasehold system, which covers 95% of owner-occupied flats, and regularly combines its restricted definition of “ownership” with punitive service charges and fights over maintenance and repairs. Though the government will soon announce plans for reform, it recently abandoned plans to get rid of leaseholding; Labour says the system is “feudal”, but has only pledged to end it for new developments.
All this highlights an even bigger issue: the fact that, even as economic precarity extends further and further up the age range, Westminster tends to view younger people as an afterthought. Whatever the arguments about how to finance higher education, one fact is clear: after Nick Clegg’s about-turn on tuition fees, Starmer is the second avowedly centrist politician in recent memory to have raised hopes of an end to huge student debt, and then dashed them. Thanks partly to the stupidities of our electoral system – and perhaps because youth-oriented politics are another Corbynite baby to be thrown out with the bathwater – his party’s main focus is on a segment of older people with rather different generational values. Labour definitely seems to take the under-30s for granted; meanwhile, as the political right’s failure to attract younger voters curdles into barely hidden loathing, it clings on to the absurd idea that far too many of them are spoiled snowflakes, whose problems supposedly amount to so much melodrama.
There is a huge political opportunity here. The Green party would do well to present itself as champion of millennials and Gen Z, not only focused on the climate crisis and what it will mean for those people, but also keenly aware of the generational injustices that Labour and the Tories talk about selectively, at best. Younger voters would surely be receptive: they always strike me as a much more politicised lot than my generation, whose large-scale support for Labour may turn out to be rather more conditional than Starmer and his allies would like to think. At this rate, their patience will sooner or later snap, with no end of consequences. Politicians on all sides ought to think about that.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist