New figures highlight the growth of Europe’s “dependent generation”

David Kingman comments on some new data which shows how many young people across Europe are struggling to fly the family nest and build a life for themselvesFamily argument

Millions of young people across Europe are struggling to move on from their parental home, according to new data from Eurofound, an agency of the European Union. This has raised new concerns that Europe may be becoming home to a “dependent generation” of young people who are unable to establish fully independent adult lives for themselves because of the economic problems which are affecting the continent.

This automatically raises the question of what the long-term impacts will be from these record levels of dependency which are being seen across Europe.

Dependent generation

The figures from Eurofound show that the overall number of people aged between 18 and 30 who are still living with their parents had risen to 36.7 million in 2011. This amounts to 48% – practically half – of everyone who belonged to this age group.

One of the most striking features of this trend is that the share of young people who still live with their parents has increased since 2007 in countries which have different social traditions, and where economic conditions have diverged significantly over recent years.

There has been a particularly dramatic increase in several northern European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, which have weathered the economic crisis relatively well, and where traditionally it was considered normal for people to stop living with their parents at a relatively young age. At the same time, the tradition of young adults living at home for quite a long time appears to have strengthened in Mediterranean countries, particularly those which have been hardest hit by the recession. In Italy, for example, 79% of young people were still living with their parents.

Interestingly, Britain was one of a small group of countries – alongside Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland – where the proportion of people aged 18 to 30 living with their parents actually fell between 2007 and 2011, from 30% to 26%. However, data released last year by the ONS showed that Britain’s “boomerang generation” is still 3 million strong. It’s possible that the proportion may be lower than in some other European countries because Britain has a larger, more loosely-regulated private rental market and a smaller (although still significant) problem with unemployment among young workers.

Indeed, this data implies that the problems facing young people in Britain may be slightly different from those found in most other parts of Europe. The victims of the Britain’s housing crisis are more likely to be trapped in unaffordable private rental accommodation, rather than being stuck at home with their parents like so many of their continental peers.

“It is really difficult to start an independent life”

Why are so many of Europe’s young people struggling to make the transition to a fully independent adult life?

According to one of the report’s authors, Anna Ludwinek, today’s generation of young people are facing a new set of insecurities in the world of both work and family:

“The situation of youth has really fundamentally changed. And it looks different from the situation of their parents and grandparents. It’s not only the world of work that has changed but society is changing, so the transitions are becoming much more unpredictable; people are not having a job for life or live in one place for life.”

Unfortunately, this often isn’t a satisfactory arrangement for either the young people or their families:

“…multi-generational households have very low life satisfaction and a very high level of deprivation and perceived social exclusion. One could argue that if you are at the age of 30 and are still living with your parents and, on top of that you have your own family, it is really difficult to start an independent life.”

Should Europe’s politicians be worried?

The fact that so many of Europe’s young people are struggling to establish themselves as independent adults ought to be of great concern to policy-makers across the continent. As Anna Ludwinek has argued, multi-generational households are often surprisingly unhappy, especially if there isn’t room for everyone to have their own space. They are also associated with higher levels of deprivation, if too many people are trying to live off a household income which is inadequate.

The long-term implications of this trend are even more worrying. Young Europeans are typically far less mobile than workers in America and other parts of the world; if they can’t afford to move and set up homes on their own in places where there are jobs, this will lead to higher unemployment. Then there is the long-term impact on relationships and birth rates, as people are less likely to have children before they have been able to set up homes of their own; Europe is already ageing, and this trend looks likely to make the problem a lot worse.

As a continent, Europe is beset by many problems; low growth, high unemployment, fractured politics and an ageing population. Unleashing the potential of the next generation of young people will be a key part of the solution to many of them, but that won’t be possible until they are first able to break free from their parents.