How millennials’ changing lifestyles may drive urban planning

November 1, 2013

 

Suburban living is often touted as the ideal lifestyle for families: plenty of yard space for kids, big houses with multiple rooms and good schools. It’s this thinking that has largely driven demand for suburban housing over the last 50 years. However, current trends suggest the next generation that will drive housing demand — the so-called millennials — will be less likely to need the comforts of suburbia, or at least not until later in life.

I often write about the millennials’ preference for walkable, urban places over traditional suburban living, though some feel it’s only a temporary trend. Proponents of traditional suburban development often dismiss the current housing choices of young Americans on the basis that once millennials grow older, get married, and have children, they will retreat to the suburbs. This may be true to some degree, but it turns out that fewer millennials are getting married, and those who do marry, do so at a later age. Moreover, millennials are also putting off having children, and are having fewer children overall. Taken together, those trends signal declining demand for the “family friendly” suburban developments that have dominated our region’s growth over the last 50 years.

Traditionally, the next step after marriage is the purchase of a home. However, demographic research shows fewer Americans are actually getting married. According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Americans in 1960 were married. Today, that number has fallen below 50 percent. This new dynamic translates into lower demand for suburban homes among younger Americans. On the other hand, demand for apartments and other attached housing continues to grow.

Not only are fewer Americans choosing to get married, but they are waiting longer to do so. The average age of people at their first marriage has to an all-time high. In the 1950s and 60s, both men and women generally decided to get married in their early twenties. Today, the average age is closer to 30, with men marrying at 28 and women at 27, the highest age in over a century. As a result, even those who want suburban homes someday may put off their purchases until they have settled down.

Another benefit of suburban life is space for the family. Conventional wisdom holds that children require more rooms and bigger yards to roam free. In 1957, there were 122.7 births per thousand people, or a fertility rate of about 3.7 births per woman. With five people per household, big homes made more sense. It’s no coincidence that the baby boom was also followed by a building boom, which spurred the traditional suburban developments we are now accustomed to.

Today, however, families are becoming smaller, making all that space unnecessary. Birth rates have fallen for five consecutive years to 63 children per thousand people. That means we are only seeing a fertility rate of about 1.8 births per woman. That is nearly two fewer children per family. Moreover, much like marriage trends, those who do decide to have children are starting much later in life. In 1970, the average age of first birth was at 22. Today, it’s around 26. As Americans have increasingly postponed the start of their families, so too have they put off buying homes.

The allure of the suburbs has always been rooted in the American Dream: a family with three kids, a big house and a picket fence. But as young Americans eschew traditional conventions of marriage and families, the demand for large-lot suburban housing will never reach the levels of demand exhibited by previous generations.

Demand for walkable, urban communities will continue to rise as millennials focus on developing their careers before starting their families. Developers would be wise to incorporate urban amenities into new communities because once millennials do decide to purchase homes, they won’t want the kind of suburban product currently provided in the market. Having spent their young adult lives in cities, many millennials will be loath to move back to traditional suburbs.

With that in mind, this generation will undoubtedly choose to purchase homes in neighborhoods with easy access to amenities rather than typical sprawling McMansion communities.

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