An intergenerational contract.

Amidst the rumble of builders, I picked up a photograph. Looking up at me were my parents younger selves; big hair, pyramids behind them. Over to the side, mum and dad were chatting, and glancing back down at the photo, I realised my parents were ageing.

Statistics New Zealand recently released their 2018 health report. This report suggests the life expectancy of our 65-year-old parents, is at most twenty more years, and interestingly the average millennial isn’t moving out of the family home until they’re twenty-seven.

Dynamics are changing. With more familial support being offered, and as our parents enter the autumn of their lives, I think it’s time we reciprocated, by building their retirement into our life plans.  

I’m calling it the intergenerational contract.

This kind of informal agreement has existed for centuries in other parts of the globe. Asian and Mediterranean cultures often still live within extended family arrangements – childcare is provided by elders, while younger generations work. Care is reciprocated, and retirement homes rarely used. 

Being careful not to romanticise other cultures (it’s important to remember that nuclear families usually provide more freedom and social mobility). In the context of an ageing population, a competitive housing market and stagnating economy it may be time to loosen our views on what home life looks like, and we may even live longer because of it.

There’s an association between non-nuclear families, fulfilment and increased life expectancy. Research on communities in Italy, Japan, Greece and Costa Rica with high concentrations of centenarians, link family life, social engagement and low stress to the above average ages and health of the residents. 

As we get older, our risk of cognitive disease also increases. Alzheimers Research UK states that globally, dementia patients will rise from 50m to 152m by 2050. Research agrees that social activity decreases your risk of cognitive disease. By spending more time with your parents, you may reduce their chance of dementia, spot it earlier, and perhaps most importantly – build joyful memories together.

It’s a reality that by living nearer to our loved ones, we can spend more time with them. If we consider the passing of time not in years, but events, anyone’s life can be made up of a certain number of books read, or Olympics watched. When I stumbled across this concept, I realised that the overseas PhD, and subsequent research career I had been considering, would all but remove time with my family. My parents may have twenty more years of life, but by moving away, I would limit myself to witnessing just 280 more days. Less than a year in real time.

While living as adults at home has associated stigma (see that popular 2000’s rom-com ‘Failure to Launch’). What if instead of comparing ourselves to our peers, or berating the state of the economy, we saw this privilege for what it is. A chance to know our parents as adults and to cultivate a stronger relationship. Boundaries will need to be set. I’m still working to push aside my childhood patterns. But it’s worth it. If leaving home teaches you how to cook, clean and budget. Then I argue that staying home teaches you communication, kindness, and respect.

Ultimately this ‘intergenerational contract’ isn’t about decreasing dementia risk. This is not about living with your parents if it isn’t right for you. This is about love. It’s about remembering our time is limited and showing up for those who cared for you, before they need any care of their own.