Opinion Comment

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Liam Collins: 'Meet Ireland's 'silver serfs', whose job of parenting never ends'

Adults in their 20s, 30s and even 40s are still relying on their parents for help, be it financial, accommodation or childcare, writes Liam Collins

'These are just the obvious manifestations of a growing trend in Irish society, ‘The Silver Slaves’.'
'These are just the obvious manifestations of a growing trend in Irish society, ‘The Silver Slaves’.'
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Like a lot of things, you only really see them when you start looking. The older woman pushing a young child in a buggy; the grey-haired man waiting each day at the school gate; the elderly couple hanging around the shopping centre with a clutch of kids still dressed in their school uniforms, waiting until 5.30pm so they can deliver them back to their parents.

These are just the obvious manifestations of a growing trend in Irish society, 'The Silver Slaves'.

This is a sub-group who have reached retirement age but are not getting to live the good life, because they have become the 'unpaid staff' designated to look after their children's children.

If you probe further, it goes far deeper. 'Children' in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s depending on their elderly parents for a financial dig-out to buy their first home, to trade up to the standard to which they aspire, to guarantee their bank borrowings, pay the children's school fees and even fund that dream holiday in the Caribbean on which they're not even invited.

The 'baby boomers' and the 'millennial' generations that were born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up 'having it all' and they still want to have it all. Their problem is that they can't afford it, so they're depending on mammy and daddy to bail them out.

And now they've been joined by the 'boomerang generation' who may have left home but are now back in the family home, some of them bringing husbands, wives and children as they put together that lump sum that will satisfy the Central Bank regulations and get them on the first rungs of the slippery property ladder.

In the 2016 census, 413,722 people between the ages of 18 and 39 were living at home with their parents. And a study by the London School of Economics earlier this year confirms the anecdotal evidence that the 'boomerang' generation' is having a having a negative effect on parents' lives.

"Retirees enjoy this stage of life, finding new hobbies and activities," said Dr Marco Tosi launching the study. "When older children move back, it is a violation of that equilibrium."

I've been reliably told the story of an elderly pensioner who has the famed 'bus pass' and has to travel by train almost a hundred miles every morning with her daughter who works in Dublin and gets a free journey as a 'carer', provided her mother is travelling, goes home and has to come back in the evening to collect her daughter and bring her back to the Midlands town where they live.

Of course, parents have always helped their children out, financially and family-wise. But back in the day, it was usually in an emergency, money needed to pay an unforeseen bill that was paid back later, or a child to be collected from a school or creche because the parents or child-minder were unavoidably delayed.

Now it's gone way beyond that. "For some parents it's a five-day-a-week job, they're treated like staff and asked to do things a person who wasn't related to you would never be asked to do," said one put-upon granny.

Although I have no grandchildren, I have three adult children living at home. When my two eldest passed the age of 21, I sometimes followed them around the house, chanting "24 and out the door" but they've both passed that threshold, graduated from college and show no inclination to move on. Why would they? They're living in a suburb of Dublin they couldn't otherwise afford, they're fed well and have a roof over their heads.

Don't get me wrong, they've never been a major burden. Since they were teenagers, they've been babysitting and working in part-time jobs, so they rarely ask for money. But for their own good, I do want them to move out and find out what it's like to live independently, to have to make decisions and choices that we had to make when we left home.

Stay-at-home adult children take a lot of things for granted simply because they don't realise the effort their elders have to put into making things run smoothly.

For those who have to deal with their children's young families, it is even more difficult.

They have worked all their lives and now they want to do a bit of catching up, a midweek break to Rome, or one of those hotel bargains for the 'grey brigade' in the small ads in the newspaper, maybe a trip to Cork (on the free travel) for lunch and a browse around the Crawford Gallery.

"But Mum, you promised to mind Sebastian, I really need you to do this," comes the inevitable whinge from the adult child, who has an important business meeting or, indeed, just expects their parents to routinely 'help out' because their busy lives and their need to make money to fund a certain lifestyle are more of a priority than the burden they're putting on their parents.

It gets worse - adult children sending threatening texts and messages to their pensioner parents demanding that they help out with the lump sum required for a mortgage to buy that dream house with a bespoke island in the kitchen. As one acquaintance put it, "in the past, it was the 'Irish mammy' who put the guilt trip on her children, now that role is reversed - mammy and daddy are made to feel guilty if they're not doing enough to help their adult children with money and child-minding."

For the first time in a decade, equity release deals are back on the table so elderly people can get cash against the future value of their home. Anyone who remembers the boom will recall the celebrities exhorting them to take out money to help their children or enjoy that "once in a lifetime" trip, only to read during the bust the heart-rending stories of those who lost their homes in their twilight years because they couldn't repay the loans.

With people living longer, children have to wait for the windfall of inheritance, which means that when they are at their most "squeezed" for cash, there is a genuine expectation that parents will help out during their lifetime rather than after their death.

There is also the inherent danger that in helping one sibling in the family, parents are unintentionally laying the foundation for future family feuds. At a later stage, when mammy and daddy have died, and it comes to dividing up the assets, children will glare accusingly across the table at each other with accusations that "you got a leg up to buy the house and I didn't, and now you're getting exactly the same as me from the will, that's just unfair".

There have also been well-documented cases of grandchildren being used as a bargaining chip in the family dynamic. "Oh well, if you don't want to mind them next week, then presumably you don't want to see them at Christmas, that's all right then" and "if you don't want to help out with a deposit for the house, we know we're not welcome, well, we'll just have to get by ourselves."

Of course, the 'boomerang' generation can rightly claim they are living at a time when everything in life seems to be going against them and stacked in favour of their parents. The housing shortage that came after the property crash means property prices in Ireland have soared. The ratings agency, Standard & Poor's, predicts that at current growth forecasts, house prices in Ireland will have increased by 128pc between 2013 (the beginning of the recovery) and 2021. This makes it impossible for many people to buy their own home and, even if you are prepared to pour "dead money", you might not be able to get a place to rent in the part of the major city on which you have your heart set.

On top of that, young adults who appear to be well-paid hit the top rate of tax earlier than almost any other country in the OECD and are punished with the additional USC tax which was supposed to be an emergency measure but is now a part of the tax take that often wipes out their disposable income.

Young people are also working in industries which have adopted what is known as 'the Ryanair model' - more work for less money. They are also hit by prohibitive childcare costs, medical insurance and the rising cost of living.

Against that, their parents have probably paid off relatively modest mortgages and own their own three- or four-bedroom houses. They're cash-rich from lump sums and gold-plated pensions from defined benefit pension schemes that mostly closed their doors to younger employees.

It could be argued that in many cases, they still have enough time to help their children out and find time for golf, bridge or other pursuits.

Some time ago, I was reminiscing about picking fruit at the age of 13, spending a summer doing shift work in the Glass Bottle Company in Ringsend, working in my uncle's pub in Mullingar, all when I was still in school.

And Dermot Desmond, now one of Ireland's wealthiest men, had worked the summer of his Confirmation picking raspberries and strawberries in Donabate before working as a lounge boy in the Addison Lodge by the Botanic Gardens.

That was the middle-class work ethic, and when you finished school or college, you were expected to move on and, in many cases, particularly in rural Ireland, emigrate and start sending back money to support younger siblings.

But the generations which came after ours idled away their summers and had their two- or three- week holidays on a campsite in France or in a villa in Spain and when they got their Leaving their parents paid for their Interail ticket or their party in Magaluf.

This dependence on their parents didn't end there - after college, many of them have simply stayed on at home or boomeranged back after trying a year's internship abroad or taking a 'gap' year to travel the world.

That was the easy part for parents. Now they're looking to their parents for the "big ticket" items, to get a leg up on the property ladder, to guarantee their borrowings in the bank and to bail them out by minding their children because childcare costs are so prohibitive.

There is no doubt the expectations of adult children have shifted dramatically in the last two decades.

Many are seriously prolonging that final step towards independence by staying at home into their 30s, even when they are sometimes no longer welcome. Others seem to believe that their parents still owe them time and money long after they should have become self-sufficient.

Society is always changing. And only time will tell whether these latest shifts are for the better or worse.

Sunday Independent

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