As the pressure to juggle home and work grows, so will multi-generation al households. By Meg Carter
IT COULD be the answer to all your childcare and retirement needs. Or a recipe for marital disaster. Whichever way you look at it, however, the multi-generational household - with parents, kids and in-laws all living under one roof - seems to be making a return.

More than 25 per cent of us already live with an additional family member or would be prepared to, while 80 per cent feel the downsizing of the welfare state makes the rebirth of the multi-generational household inevitable, according to research published last month. Soon, many of us won't have much choice.

It's not so much a family renaissance as the birth of a new pragmatism, claims Graeme Leach, associate director at the Henley Centre for Forecasting.

"Many people who were "dinkys" - double income no kids - in the late Eighties and Nineties are now having families and finding they have significantly less disposable income than they had hoped because of childcare costs and the fact that one or other partner is having to stop earning for a while or even shift to part-time working," he says.

The housing market is already bracing itself for homeowners with less money to invest (according to Barclays Life). Many people now in their twenties and thirties aren't putting enough money into their pension schemes to retire comfortably, warns Nigel Waite, marketing director of Barclays Life. "There is widespread misplaced optimism about the level of pensions people can look forward to when they retire," he claims.

Meanwhile, creeping "personal privatisation" already requires a growing proportion of middle-class incomes to be set aside for future education and healthcare needs, he adds. "As more people realise this, financial pressure on other expenditure will become acute. A multi-generational, Waltons-style household may provide on solution."

Government estimates predict that Britain will need 4.4 million new homes by the year 2016 to accommodate the growth of single person households. This, however, ignores a parallel trend, says Leach, co-author of 2020 Vision - a snapshot of British life two decades hence, published last month by Barclays Life.

More of us will start grouping together in larger households as disposable incomes stagnate or fall, life expectancy increases and concerns grow about the costs of residential care and child support. At the same time, growing employee flexibility and mobility, increased home working and the development of "cyber schooling" via the Internet will increase our focus on the home.

"There are lots of tangible benefits, not least the fact that lots of us find the idea of an extended family an appealing concept," Mr Leach adds. Those already living in multi-generational households agree.

Five years ago, while working for the Commission for New Towns, Dave Ludford and his wife, Debbie, re-located to Milton Keynes with Debbie's parents who were then in their late sixties.

"Friends were sceptical," he admits. "But the four of us decided to pool our equity and club together to buy somewhere big enough for us all to have our own space, but small enough to enjoy the benefits of living together."

It certainly helped that the two couples enjoyed each other's company. And that it was an active choice rather than a reaction to a need to care for people who could not cope alone.

Yes, there were teething problems. It soon became obvious the two couples needed separate facilities to avoid kitchen clashes, for example. His in-laws lived upstairs while he and Debbie occupied space below - "guiding principles" were needed to split the times the four spent together and apart. Now 42, Ludford is studying for an MBA at Cranfield University while Debbie is raising four-month-old twins Grace and Lily. His mother- in-law, Kit, still lives with them, although Debbie's father recently died.

"Modern parents in their sixties wear jeans and remain young at heart. The gulf between us has narrowed and the prospect of living together is easier to accommodate now because you don't feel generations apart," Mr Ludford believes.

"I think we will see a gradual polarisation - of more multi-generational family households driven by family bonds and more single person households driven by family bombs. It's already standard practice in Mediterranean countries and the Middle East: if the chemistry's right, why not here?"

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Jonathan, 35, claims his three year marriage to Melissa almost collapsed under the strain of her surviving parent moving in.

"On paper it seemed ideal - my mother-in-law needed somewhere to live, but had difficulty coping alone and did not want to go into a home. In reality, I felt she was an intrusion." After six months, both sides both agreed to call it a day.

"There's a certain logic to reverting to self-supporting household groups, but it's hard enough balancing the priorities of two breadwinners (whose job should take priority and where should they live?) let alone balancing the interests of an older generation who may or may not want to move," warns Marjorie Thaburn, head of services to couples for Relate.

"I'm not sure we've gone too far down the line with nuclear families and single parents to make the psychological shift that would be required to become inter-dependent in this way."

Mr Waite agrees the Waltons approach will not be appropriate for all. "Those driven by necessity will do so in limited circumstances - a house built for two generations will have to hold three - with the obvious side effect of increased stress and pressure on the relationships between all those concerned," he admits.

If he's right, we are all advised to start saving. And soon.

`Friends thought we were mad. At first'

ANDREW and Rosalba Riddle live in south-west London with their 22-month-old son, Alexander. And Rosalba's brother Jack and Rosalba and Jack's mother, Elvira.

"We first moved in together in 1993," Mr Riddle explains. "It was choice rather than necessity - we all wanted to live somewhere bigger but stay relatively central. As we are all close and get on, well, it seemed the obvious thing to do."

To some, perhaps. But for many, the prospect of sharing with the in-laws - especially after getting married, which Andrew and Rosalba did two years ago - sounds like a recipe for disaster.

"Friends thought we were mad," Andrew admits. "At first."

In fact, many now envy the Riddle's arrangement and two other couples they know hope to give it a try.

Motivation was key, Andrew says. Each of them wanted to live in the same area; Rosalba had grown even closer to her mother and brother since the death of her father ten years ago and the four enjoyed each other's company.

Luckily, they all work: Andrew as company director of a menswear business; Rosalba as director of a property company; Elvira as a tailor and Jack as stock controller for Andrew's business. As a result, each entered the arrangement on an equal footing and differing working patterns extended individuals' personal space.

"It was mine and my mother's idea. We spoke on the phone at least once a day, sometimes more," Rosalba admits.

"I've always hated being on my own. In this house, you always know it won't be long before someone comes home."

Andrew adds: "It's great for Alexander, too. As a close-knit family, he will grow up with an uncle and grandmother close at hand."

Not that the extended family provides a short cut to cheap childcare. With all four adults working, the family shares weekday childcare support with another family nearby.

Which suits Elvira just fine. "While we are all there to help each other out, I have my own things to do, too - besides, they couldn't afford me!" she smiles.

It helped, of course, that the Italian side of the family was used to multi-generational living.

"In Italy it's still commonplace: finding a family where it doesn't happen is unusual," Elvira adds.

Her side of the family is from southern Italy, although she has lived in Britain the past 35 years. Each family member tries to make it home for communal meals, she says.

"If there's one disadvantage, I suppose you could say that as Italians, Rosalba and Elvira do more than they probably should for me and Jack," Andrew ruefully admits.

"You can take things for granted. We know we're very lucky."

Another potential pitfall is insufficient space. And a family member with not enough to do who might take an unwelcome degree of interest in other household members' lives.

In spite of all this, conflict within the Riddle household is minimal. "All decisions about the house are joint decisions - we all have a stake," Andrew says.

Each abides by an informal arrangement that should they wish to move out they give six months notice.

Of course joint equity in a larger property makes for a sounder investment, he adds, but "it was more about being where we wanted to be".