‘I’ll still be at home when I’m 30.’ My friend and I both chuckled over our smashed avocados, light-heartedly lamenting our stereotypical spending choices: ‘If only brunch wasn’t so expensive!’ Yet we laughed because we were joking; eventually we’d curb our brunch habits and start paying rent, because neither of us actually planned on living with our parents well into adulthood. Because, well, who does?
Most of us have grown up with a cultural ideal that equates living independently with being independent. Sure, having a job, paying your phone bill and having your own credit card are all signs of independence − but the real marker of adulthood is living out of home.
I know this harks back to the days when newly married couples moved from their family homes into a new one to start their own life together. Or when young people − barely out of their teens − moved away from their parents to access better education or more jobs. And yet, though these necessities for relocation have dwindled in recent times, this idea persists. The result is that many parents expect the youth of today to get a move on with moving out. However, the reality is quite different.
It should come as no surprise to most young people that we are moving out of home later and later, and instead living at home longer and longer. More than a third of Australian adults under 30 still lived at home in 2016. Young men are more likely to remain in the nest longer than young women, with males usually moving out around 25 years of age while females leave at around 23. In contrast, the data from just a decade ago paint a different picture: fewer than a quarter of young people lived at home, and, across the board, young Australians were most likely to move out at the age of 20.
I joined the ranks of statistics last year when I moved out at the age of 24. I’d been craving my own space for a few years but, like so many of us, was held back by financial constraints. I was thrilled to finally take the leap to fully-fledged independence. And so, I began the quest for a house and housemate. I hoped (rather than believed) that I would find someone who I would connect with on a deeply personal level, who understood my passion for Harry Potter and loved peanut butter as much as I did.
Before I moved out, I had all different kinds of advice about choosing a housemate. Move out with family: you already know their worst habits, so nothing will be a surprise. Don’t move out with family: you’ll end up hating each other and then dinner at Nan’s will be awkward. Move out with friends: you can cook dinner, drink wine and binge Netflix together. Don’t move out with friends: you don’t want to risk the friendship if things go south. Move out with strangers: to paraphrase Jane Austen, the less you know about your housemate’s defects in advance, the better. Don’t move out with strangers: they could be compulsive hoarders, raging partiers or − the worst − serial food thieves. Needless to say, it’s all quite confusing.
I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories about flatmates. One friend told me how his still-wet laundry was unceremoniously dumped on the floor to make room for his housemate’s clothes. Another had to put up with raging mid-week parties and her car being used without asking. And my first housemate resorted to locking up her food, so that the person she shared with then wouldn’t eat it (I wouldn’t have believed it, except that I saw the evidence first-hand).
Since moving into a share house, I’ve acquired a few stories of my own. I’ve come home to a barren lounge room after a housemate sold our couches to an anonymous Gumtree user more than a week before we were due to move out. I’ve discovered a souvenir glass of mine in pieces in the bin, with no explanation (seven months on and we still haven’t discussed it). And, perhaps the worst, I once arrived home from an 11-hour shift only to find myself scrubbing vomit from the toilet because one housemate’s “cleaning” job was less than satisfactory.
But despite the perils of finding, choosing, and staying with housemates, many people continue to opt for the share house life. I doubt whether this is more a personal choice so much as a financial one; living is expensive and having another person, or several people, to share the bills significantly reduces your financial burden.
The 2016 census revealed that median weekly rent in Melbourne was $350 – an amount that many part-time workers and even some full-time workers would struggle to shoulder alone. It makes sense, then, that the average household size was 2.7 people in Melbourne and only slightly under that figure across the rest of the country.
Yet despite the financial burden of renting, an increasing number of Australians are choosing to live solo. Twenty-four per cent of households in the 2016 sample were reported to be single person dwellings, a figure that has been gradually climbing over the past few decades. Given the increasing cost of living coupled with stagnating wage growth, it’s probably not young people who are driving this change − at least not yet, anyway. But Australia’s housing situation is changing so rapidly that the picture could look quite different in just a few years’ time.
Personally, I would love to live by myself. I relish coming home to a quiet house that’s just the way I left it − there’s something liberating about leaving empty cups of tea scattered around the lounge room and shoes lying on the floor precisely where you kicked them off, feeling no guilt whatsoever in leaving them there. But, much to my disappointment, a part-time hospitality wage isn’t quite enough to support this kind of lifestyle.
So, I’ll continue living the share house life for now. And, all things considered, it’s really not so bad; I can come and go as I please, invite friends over for a few wines, watch Netflix into the wee hours of the morning, and eat peanut butter out of the jar at whatever time of day I choose. Now that’s what I call being an adult.
Larisa Coffey-Wong is an aspiring editor, coffee snob, cat lover and under-appreciated housemate.