ONS: Number of adult children still living with their parents has risen 25% since 1996

There has been a huge rise in the number of adult children who haven’t moved out from their parental home, according to new ONS figures. David Kingman explores the reasons behind this trendBoomerang Diagram

An ever-growing number of adult children are continuing to live in the family home rather than moving out to get a place of their own, according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics on 21 January.

The data showed that over 3.3 million adults between the ages of 20 and 34 were still living with their parents in 2013, which is 26% of that age group. Remarkably, this means that the number has grown by a quarter since the ONS started collecting data on this topic in 1996, despite the total number of people in this age group remaining static.

These findings raise lots of important questions. Why do Britain’s young people seem to be facing such a struggle to escape the family nest? And what are the knock-on implications of this for society?

Boomerang generation?

The trend towards adult children returning to live with their parents has now become so widespread that the media commonly refer to those who do so as the “boomerang generation”, the tongue-in-cheek implication being that their parents can’t seem to get rid of them, however hard they try.

The ONS figures suggest that this trend seems to affect some groups more than others. People aged 20–34 who still live at home are disproportionately likely to be male (a third of men among this age group still live with their parents, compared to a fifth of women), largely because women are more likely to form relationships with older men, on average, who may already have established themselves independently.

There is also an interesting geographical dimension. London actually has the lowest proportion of people aged 20–34 who still live with their parents (22%), whereas the highest is in Northern Ireland (36%). Cultural factors may partly explain this, as unmarried cohabitation is only about half as common in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the UK, so people are more likely to stay with their parents until they get married.

Given that London is the most expensive part of the UK for renting or buying a home, it may seem odd that it has the lowest level of adult children who still live with their parents. However, this is probably largely explained by the type of people who live in the city, as many Londoners who belong to this age group are likely to have moved from other parts of the UK, or even from abroad, in search of work – and you can’t still be living in your parents’ home if it is hundreds or even thousands of miles away! It would be interesting to know what proportion of London-born 20–34 year olds are still living with their parents, but the figures don’t include this information.

It’s house prices, stupid

The increasing cost of housing is likely to be the overwhelming explanation for why so many more young adults are now living with their parents for longer than they used to, as most of the commentary on these figures has acknowledged.

Speaking to the BBC, Karen Gask, senior research officer at the ONS, offered the following view:

“I think one of the main reasons is housing affordability, and that’s been cited by several academics who’ve looked into it. It’s hard for young people to get on the housing ladder.”

Although there are a plethora of grim housing market statistics from a young person’s point of view, one in particular which helps to explain the trend behind these figures is that the average house price paid by first-time buyers was only 2.7 times greater than their earnings in 1996, compared with 4.47 times greater now. Rents in many parts of the country have spiralled upwards as well, driven by the rampant demand from young workers who need somewhere to live but can’t afford to buy.

Members of this age group have struggled in other ways as well. The BBC Home Editor Mark Easton has argued that high levels of unemployment and low wages among young people are likely to be another contributory factor. He quotes figures which show that 13% of the 20–34 year olds who still live with their parents are currently unemployed, compared with 6% among members of their age group who live independently.

The growing burden of student debt is also likely to be playing a role, as young workers among this age group find that their net incomes are squeezed ever more tightly once expensive repayments have been deducted from their salaries.

A problem for everyone?

The housing crisis facing young adults isn’t just a problem for them, but it will have serious knock-on implications for the rest of society as well. Finding it difficult to move hurts young people who are unemployed, as it restricts their ability to look for work in other areas.

Young couples who can’t afford a place of their own are also less likely to marry and have children, which will have a big impact on the pattern of family life in the future. With the rapid rise in the number of young people still living at home which the ONS has identified, the problems of the boomerang generation look increasingly likely to come back and haunt British society in the future.