New research shows that the household of the future will be multi- generational. HESTER LACEY meets some pioneers
Christina Michael is 24 years old, and recently got married. However, she and her husband still live with her parents. And the household doesn't finish there. Also sharing the family home in Streatham, south London, are Christina's grandparents, uncle, and younger brother. Every night, the family sits down to eat together round the table in the bright and cosy kitchen. The communal meal is highly animated. "We chat about what's happening, who's doing what," says Christina, who works in PR. "It's lovely to have the family round you and be close to your brothers and your grandparents."

More and more families will turn to this kind of one-for-all-and-all- for-one Waltons-style existence in the new millennium. According to researchers, households of three or even four generations will become typical. The 2020 Vision report, a comprehensive look ahead commissioned by Barclays Life and researched by the Henley Centre, suggests that this will be as much down to economics as free choice, as the cost of living keeps rising.

It's a trend that suits Christina perfectly. She finds living in a multi- generational home quite normal because of her Greek background, and the rest of the family are equally enthusiastic. Christina's grandparents, who are getting old and frail, can be looked after, as can her uncle, who is mentally handicapped. "The children are in every night, I know where they are," says Christina's mother Andriana Kaisharis, 47, who runs her own hairdressing salon, Beauty and the Beast, in nearby Earlsfield. "We have never had to pay for babysitters, we've had help and advice from my parents over the years, and it's secure, there's always somebody home. You feel protected."

Christina's husband, Kypros, 25, a technical consultant, laughs when he is asked about living with his in-laws. "When I tell people I live with my parents-in-law, they say `Argh!'," he says. "But it's just like living with my own parents."

Christina's father, George, 51, is a fishmonger who is up every day at 3am to buy fish at Billingsgate Market, and he insists that the family sit down together to eat each evening. "It means closer family relationships," he explains. "We all sit round together and we can have a laugh. It works both ways; the children don't pay rent but if the grass needs cutting or something needs doing, one of my sons will do it. We help each other."

Whether it's your idea of heaven or hell, according to John King, deputy managing director of mortgages, general insurance, life and pensions at Barclays, plenty of families will soon find themselves squeezed into it by spiralling house prices, the cost of childcare, and the cost of caring for elderly relatives. The 2020 Vision research suggests that the arrangement of the future will be pooling financial resources and getting gran and granddad to help out with the kids, with the tacit understanding that they will themselves be looked after when it becomes necessary.

However, writer and ideas entrepreneur Helen Wilkinson, editor of a forthcoming book, Family Business, to be published by the Demos think-tank, believes that economics is not the only incentive. "People are becoming more aware of the importance of the family network," she says. "These days your job or partner might not be forever so people are looking to other parts of the network for stability. When the traditional nuclear unit breaks down everything goes with it, but if you have parents, grandparents, even neighbours, the structure is more stable."

She also believes that the extended family of tomorrow will not be identical to traditional models. "It will be different and fresh," she says. "The old-style extended family could be very restrictive. The essential difference will be that in the future, living this way will have been freely chosen."

The extended family in a non-traditional form can work extremely well. Sisters Sophia Davies and Victoria Marriott, both in their mid-thirties, share a house in London's Primrose Hill. The rest of the household comprises Richard (Sophia's husband) and their children, seven-year-old Dorothy and five-year-old twins Jim and Alfie, and Craig (Victoria's partner), and their two daughters, Lily, who's five, and Dora, 11 months old (plus the two cats, Dexter and Louis).

"We grew up here," says Sophia. "Our parents gave us the house when they retired seven years ago." The two sisters have divided the tall, narrow Georgian house into two flats - but the families share a front door and wander happily in and out of each other's territory. "It's the best of both worlds, you have your own place but your best mate is upstairs," says Sophia. "The babysitting is fantastic," she adds.

The five children are hugely enthusiastic about the arrangement, and the adults, too, are a close-knit bunch. Sophia met Richard via Victoria - they both work as architects - and Victoria met Craig via work as well; the couple now run a fitted kitchen company called Roundhouse. Sophia runs a catering business, Manja, and her partner Jane, who lives nearby with her husband and two small sons, is also part of the network. "Some people might find it all a strange arrangement, especially if they don't come from a close family, but our friends say it's fantastic," says Sophia.

When she had her twin boys, she says, she was particularly glad to have Victoria on hand. "I already had a daughter and I was running my own business. If I hadn't had that support I'd have lost it completely, I think. There aren't really any downsides to living together. I think it's barmy when people cut themselves off."

Katie Armstrong's experience of the multi-generational family is, however, rather different. In some respects the arrangement has been restricting rather than liberating. She lives in Middlesex with her husband Alan, her two daughters, Zoe, 12, and Kari, nine, and her mother Eileen Andrew, who is 82. She too is living in the family home in which she grew up; her mother never left it, and she and Alan moved in before the girls were born.

"By and large it has worked very well," she says. "We extended the house, and though we do have doors we can close to maintain two parts of the house quite separately, we all got on well and we did interconnect all the time." Her mother, she says, was always a very independent person - until she began suffering from dementia. Mrs Andrew is particularly close to her granddaughters. "My mother had to go to hospital and when we took the decision about having her back home, we were very concerned about the girls, whether it would be upsetting for them," says Katie Armstrong. "But they were vehement that they wanted her to come back. My husband has been very supportive too."

Eileen Andrew now requires constant care. "It's very restricting on our movements," says her daughter. "My mother can't be left for any length of time - someone has to be here within half an hour of her coming back from the day centre. It's difficult to get people to come in, though I do have one very kind friend who will help."

Regular respite care, she says, is crucial. "It's not all doom and gloom, she does have some lucid moments, but I do have days when I wonder how long we can all go on. I remember a specialist saying to me that caring for my mother at home would be much harder on me than on her, and I think that's true." She feels, however, that her mother benefits from being in familiar surroundings, with her family around her. "It's not something to be undertaken lightly. But having done this for two years now, the longer it goes on the more I feel I can cope - in fact I am determined to cope."

According to Diana Whitworth, chief executive of the Carers National Association (CNA), dependent relatives can stretch family ties to the limit. "Around 6 million carers are looking after people who are disabled, sick, mentally ill or elderly - people who could not manage without that care," she says. "Nine out of 10 carers care for members of their families. The bonds of family ties are strong but sometimes stretched to breaking point by the stresses of caring." Even if different generations live together, she says, this does not mean they can cope without help. "Carers need flexible breaks from caring, more financial support, more recognition of the effects on children, and plenty of practical help."

If you can't stand the thought of Waltons-style togetherness, the thing to do, says John King of Barclays, is to take action right now: sort out a proper pension plan and start hedging financially against having to install a granny flat and a nursery simultaneously. He warns that 23 per cent of working adults have not made any independent financial provision for life after retirement.

But communal living can be a dream, not a nightmare. Far from wanting to curtail her already extensive family circle, Sophia Davies wants to expand it even further: "My ideal is to get a huge old warehouse, have working space and communal space downstairs and various families in separate flats upstairs," she says.

Carers can get advice from CNA's CarersLine (tel: 0345 573369).