Middle-class student children and boomerang graduate children ‘closer’ to parents in challenging economy

There are structural challenges for young people nowadays that are different from those of their parents.
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The parents of middle-class millennials are providing vital emotional and financial support to their young adult children – as students and graduates – in a challenging employment and housing environment, new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has shown.

The parents of these children recognised that their millennial offspring – when studying at university and on returning to the family home after completing their studies – required a level of parental support that was not necessary when they were students and entering adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s.

The majority of students were in close contact with their parents and received considerable financial, emotional and practical help. The parents drew sharp distinctions between their own experiences of university and those of their young adult children, wanting things to be “different” from the relationships they had had with their own parents and wanting to support their children, commenting: “I’m still your parent, I want to help”.

Parents also recognised that their young adult children who returned to the family home having graduated from university had a “completely different mind-set” about their return to the one they had held at a similar age.

Despite some challenges for parents when their children left the family home to go to university and when they returned to the family home after university, the researchers viewed the renewed close contact between parents and children as having numerous advantages, leading to a closer and more supportive family dynamic and frequent contact within families. Nevertheless, they also documented some painful tensions between parents and their young adult children.

The families featured in the study tended to view the achievement of adult independence for millennials as a ‘family project’, with their children needing support as university students and as graduates returning home to seek scarce graduate jobs through unpaid internships, or to save money in order to eventually move out in an expensive housing market. 

The co-author of the book Professor Anne West of the Department of Social Policy at LSE said: “At the macro-level there are structural challenges for young people nowadays that are different from those of their parents: increasing levels of student loan debt, the lack of affordable of housing and precarious employment.”

Co-author Professor Jane Lewis of the Department of Social Policy at LSE said: “At the micro-level our research shows that intergenerational relationships and exchanges are considerably more significant than some of those writing about intergenerational inequalities would suggest. In particular our studies of predominantly middle-class young people - and the level of support they receive from their parents - raise fundamental concerns about intra-generational inequality.”

The research comprised two groups; parents and their student children currently studying at university and living away from home; and parents and their co-resident children after they had graduated.

The student interview group attended one of two long-established élite universities in England, with a total of 58 interviews carried out. The interviewees tended to be from middle-class backgrounds, and therefore more likely to be able to rely on family support than young adults at other universities, with the researchers questions focusing on the level of financial and emotional support provided by the parents.

The graduate interviewee group also attended an established university with high representation of middle class students. The researchers carried out 54 interviews with parents and graduate children who had returned to the family home. The researchers sought the reasons for graduates returning to the parental home, and how their day-to-day interactions and financial arrangements had been managed since they had returned home after university. All the interviews took place between 2012 and 2013.  

The research focused on the generation known as millennials, commonly defined as those born between 1981 and 1997 or 2000. The project was set against the backdrop of rising intergenerational inequality, with numerous studies finding that the baby boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1965, enjoy a better quality of life than millennials, while making substantial demands on the welfare system.

The experience of the baby boomer generation contrasts with that of their young adult children who have faced the introduction of high tuition fees in England, resulting in graduates accruing some of the highest levels of student debt in the world. The cost of housing many parts of the UK has become increasingly prohibitive, and a ‘graduate job’ has become more difficult to find. Therefore where possible, graduates tend to rely on private family resources where possible to provide a buffer against the structural and policy changes that have affected their prospects. 

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