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As rents and mortgage payments rise, is multigenerational living the secret to thriving in tough economic times?

Written by Javed Iqbal

Luke Saliba and his wife Claire Gooch decided to try something different when they were staring down the prospect of taking out a large mortgage to buy a house they could barely afford.

Instead, the young couple moved in with Claire’s mother Sylvia and took out a much smaller mortgage to renovate her house.

“The idea of ​​the nuclear family being disrupted in the suburbs [feels] like it’s been forced on us over the last 100 years,” Luke said.

“I feel like we’re challenging that, in this small way, almost going back to the way things should be.”

Luke and Sylvia are sitting on the back steps in the sunshine.  Sylvia is holding a cup of tea and Luke is holding his little son on his lap.
Luke says that having a European background means there is “no stigma attached to living with grandparents”.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens)

The housing scheme has given Sylvia the opportunity to stay in her home, which became too expensive for her to maintain alone.

“I get to live in a house that I like in an area where I have established friends – it meant I wouldn’t have any problems,” she said.

Sharing the house has also benefited Luke, Claire and their two young children.

Claire said having a small mortgage of around $350,000 and living in an area with good services meant they were better able to manage financially as the cost of living rises.

“My daughter is going to have surgery for tonsils and adenoids and tonsils,” she said.

“If we didn’t live like this, it would be a problem and we would have to make choices between food, rent bills and medical things that the kids have needed.”

Three generations of women sit on a sofa and read a picture book to the youngest, who has a dummy in her mouth.
Claire says living with her mother is a good choice, but acknowledges that not everyone has the opportunity to tap into generational wealth in this way.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens)

Having another adult in the house also meant that she and her husband could turn to her mother for advice.

“My mother is very different from me and it’s been really good because my children get things that I wouldn’t be able to do with them [and] I get ideas that I wouldn’t have had.’

The housing arrangement worked because they tried to relate as housemates, not mother-daughter, she said.

“This is a group home where we are related and because we have similar backgrounds… we can probably live together a little easier, but living with my daughter isn’t always easy, but it goes both ways, right?” Sylvia said.

The grandson of Spanish and Macedonian immigrants, Luke said having a European background meant there was no stigma attached to living with grandparents, and he appreciated the presence of an older generation in the house.

“If any of us have a bad day, we don’t have to travel to go and touch base and provide that family support. We have it in-house,” he said.

A man, his mother-in-law and small child sit on the back steps of their house in the sunshine.
Sylvia loves being involved in her grandchildren’s daily lives.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens)

Multigenerational households are growing

Edgar Liu, a senior researcher at UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre, said economic circumstances were often the driving factor for people choosing to live in a multi-generational setting.

Dr. Liu, who researched multi-generational living over several years and defined it as households with more than one generation of adults, said data from the UK and US showed that the economic shock of the global financial crisis (GFC) increased the number of multi-generational households in these countries.

headshot of a man smiling at the camera and wearing glasses.
Edgar Liu says multigenerational households are on the rise.(Delivered UNSW)

“Especially from the United States there is evidence of that [showed] a normal growth rate was about 1.5 percent for these kinds of households,” he said.

“[That] doubled to around 3 per cent when the GFC came on and then continued for a few years before dying back to the normal rate of 1.5 per cent.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provided new data to the ABC on three-generation households.

It showed a slight increase in three-generation living arrangements over recent years, from 275,000 in 2016 to 335,000 in 2021.

But Dr. Liu said the biggest growth in Australia had occurred in households where two generations of adults lived together.

While economics, particularly the cost of care for both the young and the elderly, influenced people’s decisions to form multigenerational households, Dr. Liu that family connection was the benefit most often cited when people had experienced such lifestyles.

But he said in Australia this lifestyle was still stigmatised.

“The acceptance was very conditional, you had to have a reason to do this, you can’t just want to do it,” he said.

“[For example] your mother was in a wheelchair, so that’s why she had to live with you,” was seen as an acceptable reason, Dr. Liu said, but if someone just enjoyed living with their mother, it would raise questions.

A father, his two children and his parents sit around a coffee table and play cards.  There is a plate of snacks on the table.
A favorite family activity at Irina’s house is cards.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens )

The solution to isolation

Irina Kawar has always lived surrounded by generations of family, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Irina believes that a “joint family”, as it is called in India, can solve much of the isolation and loneliness experienced in Australia today.

“This is a very good solution for those people who feel isolated, because isolation is as big a problem in old age as it is in teenagers,” she said.

“It’s a win-win for everyone, isolated teenagers, isolated grandparents – together they’re happy.”

For Irina, it also makes financial and emotional sense to live with her parents-in-law, husband and two daughters.

A daughter husband and wife drinking tea at a table.
Irina says living with someone – child, partner or parent – involves sacrifices, but the benefits outweigh the challenges.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens)

She said she never felt alone or frustrated learning to parent when her children were young because she always had family around her to support her.

As migrants in Australia, having grandparents in the house also helped her children maintain a connection to Indian culture and language, she said.

“[The grandparents] follow daily religious practices so I don’t have to make an extra effort to bring this in [the girls’] life, they can grow up around these practices as naturally as my husband and I did,” she said.

“If it was just the two of us raising our girls, we’d have to make a conscious effort to speak to them in Hindi, but living with grandparents – they just learn Hindi naturally.”

For those who have never tried living beyond the nuclear family unit, Irina understands that there can be trepidation.

But she said you were victimized whoever you lived with, whether it was a partner, a child, parents or extended family.

“A little sacrifice is all it takes, but the benefits are great.”

an elderly woman and her daughter in her 60s sit at an outdoor table drinking cups of tea.
Nina Xarhakos has moved in with her mother Maria, and has become her primary caregiver.(ABC News: Rhiannon Stevens)

Caring for Maria

Decades since she last lived with her parents, Nina Xarhakos moved in with her mother Maria in 2020.

At 92, Maria suffers from mobility issues and was becoming isolated following the death of her husband and several close friends, as well as the closure of her Greek social club due to COVID-19.

“I have worked in the community sector with Greek-speaking elderly, [so] I’m very aware of how prevalent depression and anxiety are among the elderly,” said Nina.

She said she respected her mother’s wish to stay at home as long as possible.

“It’s satisfying for me to be able to make that kind of contribution to her quality of life, and I think it strengthens our relationship as well.”

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Javed Iqbal

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