When my sister was young, she told my mother she would one day buy a house next door to me. Presumably, we would watch The Magic Faraway Tree, build couch-cushion castles and snack on potato-smileys together into adulthood, returning to our adjacent abodes at bedtime. We both laugh now at the thought, but there is something beautifully human about her wish — untempered by context and constraint, her ideal future was close to her family.
It’s often said that my generation do not hold “family values”, and do not want settled lives in tight-knit communities. Millennials are said to want “flexible” lives, prioritising instant gratifications over long-term commitments. The now infamous furore around smashed avocado exemplifies this vain attempt to locate intergenerational inequality within the millennial psyche, rather than external conditions.
A recent report from the University of Melbourne now counters this dubious narrative. According to the study, Life Patterns, millennials value family, community and place just as highly as previous generations. We aspire to forge stable lives embedded in strong social networks. But sustaining our connections is increasingly difficult. Thanks to decades of “flexible” and “agile” economic reform, fragmented and unstable living patterns are straining relationships and atomising our communities. Flexibility is not a millennial lifestyle choice; it is an imposition of neoliberalism.
Housing policy pulls families and communities apart
Baby Boomers and Generation X mostly rented away from home in their twenties, then settled down in their thirties by purchasing a suburban home, often near parents or family members. But for my generation, the terrain has shifted. According to the Life Patterns report, Generation Y is two times less likely to own a home within 10 kilometres of where we grew up than Gen X were by the end of their twenties. Due to rising rental and housing prices, millennials are generally staying at home far longer into our twenties, but are then forced to choose between indefinite renting and moving considerable distances from our families to cheaper fringe suburbs.
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It is no surprise that Gen Y is moving further away. According to Fairfax, the median-priced three-bedroom house in Melbourne is $690,000. You would need household income of approximately $111,876 a year to comfortably afford it. Conversely, it takes a household income of only $59,667 to afford an equivalent house at $368,000 in Bendigo.
But this leaves millennials hamstrung between social identity and financial standing. Parents and grandparents often support young parents with childcare, but cannot care for kids who live hours away. Friendships give our lives meaning, but are similarly strained by distance.
Public debate often centres on insufficient housing in proximity to employment and services but, as the Life Patterns study finds, we often ignore the social networks and sense of belonging which ties people to particular locations. As one survey participant said: “It is sobering to know that I won’t probably have the ability to own my own home or be in the environment that I grew up with.”
The right have sold out families
Conservatives have long held the family as a centrepiece of their ideology, distinguishing themselves from liberals who hallow the individual. Though the family and community have often been mere fig-leaves for the right’s regressive agenda, few would question their enduring relevance to contemporary society.
As historian Judith Brett details, the Liberal Party under Robert Menzies made home ownership central to its project of nation-building, seeing it as the “basis of a stable society”, ensuring “deep human needs” such as “secure family life and a sense of independence”. Owner-occupied homes were the building blocks of strong networks of family and friends, and ultimately a strong nation.
Yet the Coalition no longer see houses as homes, just mere assets to be accumulated. It is not Barnaby Joyce who reveals the moral bankruptcy of conservatism, but the Coalition’s abandonment of families in favour of rich property investors addicted to negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount. The party founded on a vision of aspirational community is thwarting the thoroughly ordinary aspirations of young people, and atomising our local communities and social networks.
It now costs $1.18 million to buy an average home in the Melbourne suburb I grew up in. I want to stay close to my family; perhaps not next door, but within a reasonable commute. But thanks to the government’s contemptuous housing policies, that future may remain a childhood fantasy.