Return to the family safety net? Economic security as Life Chances participants turn 30

Ursula Harrison and Dina Bowman

Stage 12 of the longitudinal Life Chances study observes a noticeable trend of needing to rely on family resources.

At a glance

Turning 30 has been associated with the establishment of a career, financial independence, family formation, home ownership and other signifiers of adulthood. Over the past three decades, economic and social change means that these expectations have been shaken and no longer hold true for many 30-year-olds.

Of course, families have always provided support, but policy that relies on such support entrenches inequities, as not all families can provide the same level of support. This need to rely on the family safety net is a thread which runs through our examination of economic security among the 30-year-olds in our study.

Dive deeper

The longitudinal Life Chances study arose from BSL’s concern about the level of child poverty in Australia and a desire to better understand what affects children’s life chances. It began with the parents of 167 infants born in two suburbs in inner Melbourne in 1990. The children were a representative cross-section of all births in the suburbs at that time (Gilley 1993).

Each stage of the study has highlighted the impacts of advantage and disadvantage on life chances. Stage 12 focuses on economic security and financial wellbeing as participants approached 30, a threshold age.

This report draws on:

  • 85 About myself survey responses, collected in mid 2019 from the 125 remaining members of the original 167 Life Chances participants
  • 26 interviews conducted in late 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic) with the (almost) 30-year-old participants, selected based on gender and childhood family income
  • 14 interviews conducted in 2020 with parents from the original sample, to examine expectations and opportunities in 1990 and 2020.

Changes in social and economic policies, and an increasingly targeted and conditional social security system, place greater emphasis on individual responsibility and personal resources, self-reliance and self‑provision.

For some 30-year-olds, knowing that they could ‘lean into their privilege’ and call on the family safety net when times were tough, the impacts of financial insecurity were somewhat cushioned. Others did not have the same options, and without secure ongoing employment building a savings buffer or buying a house were retreating dreams.

Policies that force a return to reliance on family support, described by Esping-Andersen (1999) as familialism, reinforce intergenerational social inequalities because families with limited resources have less capacity to provide this support.

Reversing the drift towards familialism requires a commitment to policies focused on creating a just and equitable future for all. This would see investment in sustainable and inclusive jobs, quality education, affordable health care, housing and child care. It would include providing adequate social security to meet current and future challenges.

Last updated on 2 March 2022