When it comes to family, where does love stop and duty begin? Sometimes that’s easily answered: evolutionary instinct moulds a parent’s love for their children into something fierce and uncomplicated. Broaden out the focus to siblings, adult children, ageing parents, aunts and uncles, and the answer is less straightforward.
Britain’s more individualistic approach to family is often contrasted with family cultures in southern Europe. There, young people tend to leave the parental home later, and it is much more common to find three or even four generations of the same family living under the one roof. But as the UK’s housing crisis has given way to a “boomerang generation” of young people in their 20s still living at home, and as the shrinking amount of state funding for older care leaves more families to fend for themselves, there are signs that we might be starting to embrace a more Mediterranean approach to family life. The question we’re not asking is: at what cost?
Britain’s cultural approach to family has long been reinforced by its economy and its education system. In Victorian Britain, working-class young people left home in their early teens to enter domestic service, at one point the country’s biggest source of jobs. Half a century ago, baby boomers came of age in a world of cheap housing and plentiful jobs, which eased their route to independence. The number of young people going to university, many of them moving away from home, has ballooned from just 2% immediately after the second world war to over 40% today.