In the best film ever made, Frank Capra’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, the hero is desperate to leave home. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, wants to explore the world like many of his successful friends.
But, as you know from watching the movie every Christmas, George never quite makes it. The Buildings & Loan, set up by his father to help the poor buy houses, needs him. His witless uncle needs him. The town of Bedford Falls needs him (lest it be dominated by a tyrannical old miser and renamed Pottersville).
My thoughts turned to George Bailey when reading that more and more young men are now living with their parents. Much has been written about why this is happening to the so-called ‘boomerang generation’ – who leave and come back. Similarly, lots has been said about the ‘sandwiched’ parents who provide the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to children who cannot quite achieve escape velocity from the family orbit.
These concepts are almost always considered negatively. And indeed there is something unsettling about young men who – usually for financial reasons – do not fulfil that arc of manhood with all its rites of passage (including setting up their own family home).
And yet, as George Bailey reminds us, there can be something redeeming about a grown-up child who chooses – sometimes against their better judgement – to stay close to the family nest.
Indeed, it has long struck me that one of the strange ironies of modern life is the sheer effort parents expend to secure an outcome which often renders them miserable.
Increasingly, parents stump-up huge amounts of cash for tutors and private schooling to wring the last ounce of academic performance from their child. For what? So their prodigy can go to university many miles away to get a degree that will allow them to take a job which will probably require them to work anywhere, including abroad.
Of course, this is one of the oldest paradoxes in parenting. We love our offspring so much that we move heaven and earth to launch them into the world (even though that may mean they will effectively be lost to us).
But I wonder if the sands are shifting irrevocably here. Certainly, many young people now question the merits of a – sometimes – meaningless higher education. They baulk at the student debt. They wonder if it might be better to get stuck into the world of work without leaving home for a distant campus. When George Bailey saw his friends return from college, they did so in cadillacs. It tends not to be like that now.
So does this release some of the pressure on parents? Does it provide a justification to the instinct to retain a child’s presence, rather than submit to the cool logic that betterment comes with dislocation? Well, I would definitely not argue the merits of children living in the family home indefinitely. A well-run home can flourish with adult-children around, paying their way, doing their share – while saving up money for their own property. But there is a natural life-cycle to such an arrangement. When our children find a spouse of their own.
Yet, how many parents are there out there who – like George Bailey’s matchmaking mother – seek to keep their child in the neighbourhood? Surely the answer is the vast majority of those parents whose home life is harmonious. This is not about seeing our children as friends from whom we cannot part (good parenting is to be a parent first, and a friend second). But it is to acknowledge that the family can exist beyond the home, within the locale. Again, I accept this will seem incompatible with the aim of helping our offspring to ‘get on’. Perhaps, though, many parents would be happy to see – like George Bailey – their child get on a little less, if that meant being around more.