This story was originally published in Builder.
The Census countdown to an American demographic inflection point has begun.
For demographers, where patterns tend to play out over decades, this is high drama. For housing players, both market rate single-family for-sale and rental, as well as supportive senior housing organizations, the Census report is a blast across the bough for planning, finance and economics, community and house design, land development, and their connection to health and well-being for older Americans.
By 2030, every Baby Boom generation man or woman alive will be age 65 or more. (And if the news cycle keeps up at its current pace, many of us will feel a lot older than that.) That means one in five people walking around at that time—with help or not—will be of retirement age.
And by 2035, if birth and death rates continue to trend as they have, the nation will cross another tipping point.
Census demographer Jonathan Vespa notes:
“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.”
Wall Street Journal staffers Paul Overberg and Janet Adamy write of how this shift will intensify policy and economic challenges:
Lower population growth could drag on economic growth. This year’s prime-age workforce—ages 25 to 54—is about 630,000 smaller than the Census Bureau projected it would be just three years ago. The bureau projects the prime-age workforce will grow 0.5% a year through 2030, down from a 2014 projected annual rate of 0.58% for the same period.
The growing elderly population will also put pressure on lawmakers to shift funding toward programs such as Medicare and Social Security, particularly because elderly Americans vote at high rates, said Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
And housing is in the cross-hairs of both policy and economics.
Housing as a societal phenomenon and a business.
The questions are, as regards preparing American communities for this sea change, who's accountable for what? Who will pay? The price may not be negotiable, but who shoulders the burden, and who generates value and profitability in light of dramatic new opportunities may or may not be organizations investing in, developing, designing, and building homes and communities as we know them now.
As has so often been the case, if someone or ones in the business today don't step up big time and match resources, research, development, and a value proposition to the needs, challenges, and goldmine of opportunity this new age wave, someone or ones from outside it will.
"I always tell my folks, there's kids out there in some garage trying to figure out how to disrupt our business, and chances are they will," a development company executive told me recently.
So, from a 40,000-foot view, are housing's leading for-profit enterprises and their business scope and strategy a good solid fit with emerging needs as American society flips in the next decade from a young country to an aging one? Are strategies that narrowly focus on the well-to-do tiers of the population and its housing preferences and needs the smarter ones, or will it turn out that some brilliant entrepreneur will crack the code of how to address the much larger universe of people with less means by navigating and hurdling barriers of cost, regulation, social push-back, and productivity paralysis.
What possible new business and community development models—beyond age targeted single-family for sale, senior housing rental, assisted living, nursing homes, etc. we see today—may emerge?
Could some version of the "housing-as-a-service" co-living model Starcity and We Live are developing for young adults apply to an intentional neighborhood model for aging adults?
Clearly, demographics—at least as we've known it as the science of people patterns—is not destiny when it comes to matching up absolute numbers of individuals with business success. People collectively use switches and levers to control and calibrate their exposure to risk and their holistic sense of opportunity, just the way the Federal Reserve does.
Every time we assume that the demographic playing field is tilted inevitably our way, we learn that there are other options, other streams of choice that they find because both individually and as a cohort they're cunning and won't get put in a corner.
So, the next 12 years will be exciting ones for those in housing. The basic question for profitable enterprises—how well does our core business fit America's need for homes and communities?—will be one to ask and answer, again and again and again.
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