Not home, alone

Leaving Home
April 5, 1996

It is the destiny of just about everyone to leave home, and to each one of us the experience is profoundly felt. Moving from home is a key rite de passage in the transition from childhood to independent adulthood. In Britain, over half of us leave home by the age of 21, though people do it for a wide variety of reasons. A good many leave, but then return for a while before setting off again.

Leaving home is overlaid with moral censure. While once it might have been regarded simply as part of growing up, today it is more often seen as an irresponsible act of the young who would be better advised to stay with their parents until they have the wherewithal to ensure a good start in life. With our major cities blighted by the sight of young homeless, such an outlook has obvious appeal to politicians eager to escape any responsibility for such a shameful situation.

Gill Jones, in this the first major study of leaving home, is keen to avoid viewing it as in some way deviant, to which end she proposes that we approach it as part of a transition to citizenship. From this perspective her opposition to recent government policies is predictable, as are her calls for state involvement to reduce the risks.

Oddly enough, leaving home has been little studied. Jones makes good this gap by drawing on a combination of national survey data and interview materials in an endeavour to study the risks and opportunities (the risks are emphasised here) for Scotland's homeleavers. She focuses on four major features: access to jobs and income, the role of social security, access to independent housing and family support. She reports a pretty dismal situation with poor wages and few employment opportunities available to the young, welfare benefits draconionly cut by a government determined to return the young to their parents (and the young can range from 16 up to 25 years of age), huge pressure on available housing exacerbated by a burgeoning student population, and very variable family circumstances. The author supplements this work with historical material and biographical accounts of homeleavers' strategies for coping.

This fascinating subject is spoiled by a turgid writing style that takes far too long to tell its sorry tale. The book is directed at policymakers, but its overfondness for citing Jones's own work and its plodding sociologese make it unlikely to reach many there. Here are subjects that are compelling to anyone with either a social conscience or even children. Unfortunately, Jones fails to convey either the joys of successful transition to independent living (these get no mention at all) or the tragedies of those whose circumstances lead them to being down and out.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Leaving Home

Author - Gill Jones
ISBN - 0 335 19285 8 and 19284 X
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 178

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