Homebirds and the hidden housing crisis

The latest batch of census data released yesterday reveals that in Ireland, in 2023, over half a million young adults are still living at home with their parents.

In the housing statistics, these people are not counted as homeless, because they have a home. It’s just not their own. 61% of adults aged between 20 and 24 are still living at home, with mammy and daddy.

These figures are clearly connected to another figure released yesterday: We have more families now, but the number of children per family has fallen by 26% since the middle of the 1990s. People are getting married later, and having fewer children.

The obvious reason for this is that people do not believe they can afford to start a family until much later in life. All of the alternative explanations, far from disputing this, reinforce it: Somebody who says they want to settle into their career first is saying, after all, that they want financial security. Notably, you find very few people who are young and living with their parents who say they are doing that by choice. In one aspect of our lives, we’ll be honest and say we can’t afford a place yet. In the other, we’ll say we’re not married yet because we don’t feel ready.

And yet, there’s not much reason to suspect that basic human desires have shifted dramatically since the middle of the 1990s. It has become fashionable to suggest that older ages of marriage and children are related entirely to choice, and it’s almost verboten to note that as society has become more advanced, it’s become less and less affordable to be a young family.

All of this is connected, too, to the State’s recent (and not unwelcome) decision to begin subsidising IVF treatment for some women. Infertility issues for couples are obviously and clearly linked to the pattern of living at home for longer, marrying later, and trying to have children at a point in life where one or both partners have passed the peak of their fertility.

All of it comes back, in the end, to housing: Expensive homes require higher incomes to purchase and maintain, which in turn requires living at home for longer and focusing on your career more intensely and deferring children and marriage until all of that is sorted. The longer it takes to sort, the longer your own family waits. It is progressive to dress this up as either individual choice or societal trends or the impact of feminism, but it is fairly clearly mostly a result of the economics of housing.

There are big questions, I think, to be asked of Ireland’s economic model and the kind of society it has produced. For years now, we have prided ourselves on building an educated workforce and attracting multinational companies – but for years many of the big prestigious companies in Irish society have openly preyed on our younger people. Unpaid internships; followed by low-paid graduate jobs with long hours; a culture of work-slavery where the people in the office until midnight are seen as more likely to get promotions; egg-freezing programmes for female staff to emotionally blackmail, or emotionally comfort, younger people into believing it will all work out in the end.

Here we are, a few decades on, and there are tens of thousands of Irish people who have done exactly what our economic model said they should: Gone to college. Gotten a masters. Worked long hours as a trainee. Put their social life on the backburner. And where are they? Living with mammy.

It’s also connected, I would argue, to the education system itself: We produce thousands of graduates every year, but relatively few builders and plumbers and carpenters. We need vast amounts of new housing, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t have a domestic workforce capable of delivering it. Everything has been oriented towards getting people jobs that are prestigious, rather than jobs that help them build a life for themselves.

The problem is, so long as Mammy and Daddy are happy to help out and keep the dream alive, nothing will change: People sincerely believe that it will all work out, and that they’ll get their own place in their thirties and their family in their forties. Out of pure love, parents provide all the support they can.

The result of this is sort of political stagnation: Nobody’s really angry enough to demand the necessary changes, because everyone still has the hope, supported by the kindness of their parents, that it will all work out in the end.

But if parents across the country were to kick all their adult children out of their homes tomorrow, as would be their right, there would be something close to a revolution. Because this is the real housing crisis, and nobody’s really willing to confront it head on.

And for all the talk about the Irish economy, and all the rosy tax and growth numbers, the fact is simple: An economic model wherein most young people cannot afford to move out of home is not a good one, and cannot be called a success.

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