My graduate son left home for good three years ago, aged 22. That is why the contents of his old flat are in our garage, his CD collection has usurped ours and he's sleeping in our spare room. It's only for a few weeks, while he gets himself sorted out, has been since last January, and, yes, I am thrilled every time he comes through the door, but he shouldn't be there. Not because we don't love having him around, but because he is entitled to a life of his own, which, in this country, pretty much boils down to a place of his own.
At his age I already had – largely on the strength of a degree obtained with a grant – a career with a pension, a husband, a three-bedroom Victorian semi five minutes from the sea, a little car, no debt except a modest mortgage, and my sights set on a first baby. That was commonplace. A generation on, only a small, privileged minority could even dream of getting to first base in their mid-twenties.
Two publications last week homed in on boomerang kids – if men and women in their thirties and forties can be called kids – and "kippers": kids in parents' pockets. One was a manual advocating "tough love" for adult offspring still in the nest. Empty the fridge and eschew the washing and ironing, said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which would be better employed making sure our young are employed at all. Then the Abbey disclosed that half a million adults aged 35 to 44 have moved back with parents, following in the footsteps of the million adults aged up to 24 and 440,000 25- to 34-year-olds.
There is no universal reason for going home, but there are common factors: a job lost or no first job at all, relationship breakdown, and the cost of property. Our young leave university with a massive debt that quashes any incentive to live frugally or save – why stint on a few quids' worth of fripperies when you are already £30,000 in the red? Why chase the fiftieth job this week when hundreds will be doing the same and you are among one million young people out of work, a group legitimised by its very size?
There is a way to independence. And it is built upon dependence of a different kind. For there has never been a better time to be a rich kid. Equipped with wealthy parents, you can open doors. The wearisome student debt can be written off. The elusive first job can be nailed with a period of grandly named internship – unpaid work in the professions, funded by mum and dad, which provides the experience and the contacts to secure a paid position. Parents who have made a bomb on their own houses can invest in a first property for their daughter or son, perhaps devising a family part-buy scheme. After that, all the pieces fall into place. Relationships survive better if money worries are absorbed. The one-bed flat neatly leads to the two-bed, the first terraced house, the family semi.
All of which makes a mockery of promises of social mobility. The children of the rich follow a new, defined path while the poor face dead-ends. Stumbling along between the poles of wealth and poverty, are those who make up the middle-class Middle England of the future, who can vote at a general election in a few months' time and probably will not bother to do so. They feel let down by Labour's promise of "education, education, education" that didn't add "at crippling personal cost", and are cynical about a privileged Tory leader's capacity to put himself in their shoes.
My son, who has an income now and who really, really will move out again next month, will vote, though. As long as he is at my table I can still slip politics into his soup.
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