A Game Of Happy Families

29th November 2013

“G’night Daddy, g’night Mary Ellen”… Kathy Walton observes the rise in 3G living

With their home-spun wisdom, patchwork quilts and faded dungarees, The Waltons (that’s the eponymous Waltons of the 1970s American TV series – no relation to my good self), seem an unlikely model for modern families.

Three generations of this poor-but-happy family lived in a large clapboard house in rural Virginia during the Depression of the 1930s. The series (based on a novel called Spencer’s Mountain, inspired by author Earl Hamner Jr’s own childhood) ran for more than ten years and attracted large audiences in the USA and Britain. Yet while there was something undeniably appealing about their old-fashioned goodness and the harmony between the three generations, frankly, even as a teenager, The Waltons made me cringe. Heaven forbid that I might actually go on to marry one…

It wasn’t just their seven implausibly well-behaved children that I found off-putting, it was the heavy moralising and the cheesy chorus of ‘G’night Mary Ellen, g’night Jim-Bob’ as the credits rolled that made the Waltons seem too good to be true.

Ellen Corby: Grandma Walton; Richard Thomas: John-Boy

However, if today’s sociologists and economists are to be believed, we will all be Waltons before you can say John-Boy. Despite their quaint customs, it appears that the Waltons were actually ahead of their time with their multi-generation living.

According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘everyone under one roof’ will soon become the norm. With rising house prices, job insecurity and a greatly reduced pension pot, three generations (3G) living in the same home looks set to become more and more common. There are currently 500,000 3G households in Britain (a 30% rise in the past decade) with 3G families set to triple in the next 20 years.

In some cases grandparents run out of money, or need to live with their adult children during their twilight years; in others the price of property or the onset of unemployment sends adults in their 20s and 30s, often with children of their own, boomeranging back to Mum and Dad.

The advantages to working parents are obvious, of course; with Granny in situ, the children are looked after by someone who adores them and brings them up properly, rather than by an alien teenager with machine-gun English (sit, eat, stop zat now), who spends all day texting her boyfriend. By comparison Granny is an angel, who tests the kids on their times tables, sews name labels on their school uniform and bakes delicious fairy cakes. She’s also cheaper than a nanny.

And for her part, Granny never feels lonely; the grandchildren keep her young and when her health does eventually fail, she needn’t fork out for a nursing home because her family are on the spot.

Living with your parents is well-established in Asian families, where older people are revered and young mothers in particular are recognised as needing help and companionship. (It can’t be a coincidence that postnatal depression is virtually unheard of in Asia). My friend Noreen, who is originally from Malaysia, found that having her mother move in, when her sons were born, was beneficial for everyone.

“Mum lived with us for seven years and played a huge role in the boys’ lives, which she and they loved, but she never intruded on our space or questioned me or my husband.

Noreen was working full-time. “I didn’t want to take a break and I knew my children were safe.”

Fortunately Noreen and her husband were happy to include her mother in their social lives, but what happens when the two ladies of the house don’t get on? Two women in the kitchen is, as it happens, the Chinese symbol for war. Noreen knows of another 3G household where the wife and live-in mother-in-law are so hostile to each other that the marriage is in trouble.

“Mum and I had a great relationship, but I couldn’t live with my mother-in-law or even a daughter-in-law, because women compete for the love of the same man,” she admits.

If living with your in-laws sounds like Les Dawson’s idea of a bad joke, perhaps the answer is to get your own space – a cabin in the garden or a snug in the house, that is strictly off-limits to the rest of the family.

For one retired couple, Alexander and Barbara, who share a house with their son David, daughter-in-law Jane and three grandchildren, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Alexander and Barbara, who had previously enjoyed living with Barbara’s parents, reconfigured their house to create two parts, each with its own front door. They also took legal advice about shared ownership and what would happen if their son were to divorce.

“We share the same pile of bricks, but we are separate because you need [that]… even if it’s only a flight of stairs,” says Alex.

The couples set up certain rules beforehand, such as knocking before using the inter-connecting door “and I certainly wouldn’t remodel the garden without asking David!” Alexander adds. David helps his father with DIY and there is an agreed formula for sharing the bills.

Far from being taken advantage of as a live-in childminder, Barbara says she prefers babysitting with the help of a baby monitor to driving miles to look after her grandchildren. She also loves being able to watch them grow up.

“I’ve developed a close relationship with my daughter-in-law, we benefit from a lovely large garden and David didn’t have to move away from the area to afford a home,” she says.

Multi-generational living works for the kids, too. Joanna, 51, still describes the time her grandmother spent living with her (beginning when Jo was seven) as “three of the best years of my life”. As an only child, she valued her Gran’s company. “Before and after she was with us I felt the family was unbalanced: it was ‘MumAndDad – and me’, but when she was there it was ‘MumAndDad’ and ‘MeAndGran’.”

Another unlikely beneficiary of shared homes is the building trade. Think of the downstairs bathrooms and wider doorways that Granny or Grandpa will need once they and their Zimmers become inseparable – and all those extra bedrooms that 3G living requires. A new breed of architect is even emerging, known as MGs, (you read it here first), who specialise in designing multi-generation homes that can accommodate everyone and everything, from pram to mobility scooter.

By pooling resources, two couples can afford a much larger house than a pair of pensioners or newlyweds could buy on their own. They could even purchase property with outbuildings to convert, which has the added advantage of both privacy and thick walls for blocking out the competing claims of rap music and soap opera.

Remember how the teenage Walton daughter would lay her head on Grandma’s knee when some boy had snubbed her at the barn dance, or how Daddy and Grandpa repaired the picket fence while Mama and Grandma made apple pies?

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Of course 3G living, with all its potential for family feuds and disagreements (not least about the tv) won’t suit everyone, but I’d like to see more of it. It is certainly one answer to our housing problem and according to the London Sustainable Development Commission, it could help solve the energy crisis: only one house to heat and no car trips to see Granny.

When it works, sharing a house saves money and bridges the generation gap, with each learning from the experience – even if it’s only little Jonnie teaching Grandpa to use an iPhone or Granny showing wee Jane how to make sloe gin…

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