Grown-upville: Neighborhoods for the new majority
Childless households are the new American majority. Their tastes are shaping adult-friendly enclaves.
© Inti St. Clair/Getty Images
The babble of children's voices is muted in American communities these days; households without children have become the new majority.
"The fact is, 80% of households in the U.S. are not families with children," says demographer William Frey, of the Brookings Institution. This interactive U.S. map shows populations of families with and without children.
In family-friendly Provo, Utah, the No. 1 city for married couples with children, the group comprises just 27.5% of households. In Provo's suburbs, too, the supposedly typical American household is a minority: 45%. Other cities and burbs, the 2010 Census revealed, have an even smaller share.
As the family balance changes, certain urban neighborhoods — intentionally or inadvertently — are gaining strength as magnets for the child-free, a term some prefer. The demographic is attracted by — and it attracts — urban amenities such as hip cafes, galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, yoga centers, bookshops and religious communities catering to adults.
Childless homebuyers are free to pursue housing bargains where they find them — near jobs, entertainment and public transit and in inner-city neighborhoods, and without regard for safe playgrounds and good schools.
"If you're a family of four and you're up against a childless couple, you can't spend the money they can," says Ryan Robinson, city demographer for Austin, Texas, where childless homebuyers are changing the landscape. An influx of childless residents is transforming once-poorer East Austin: Between 2000 and 2010, the area was virtually emptied of children while adults flooded in, Robinson says.
Winners and losers
A hundred years ago, East Austin was a black neighborhood. It later became a working-class Latino enclave. Now it is a mecca for childless hipsters of all ethnicities.
The heart of the newly gentrified area is the 78702 ZIP code. It's "all about being adult-friendly," Robinson says. "There's probably a neighborhood like this in a lot of cities."
No data are available to describe the effect of childless buyers on a national housing market that is, in any case, practically frozen in its tracks by recession. But in trendy neighborhoods like 78702 in or near urban centers, the footprint of this new majority — at least the more-affluent parts of it — is visible.
A loft developer explained to Robinson, for example, that his target market was middle-aged Anglo, Hispanic and Asian women. "This represents a sea change in the attitude of East Austin," Robinson says.
Such transitions produce winners and losers. In Austin, the displacement of the old neighborhood is a source of tension, Robinson says. The Washington Post in 2010 described the incursion of families into the gentrified, then-largely child-free Lincoln Park neighborhood: "Skirmishes have erupted on buses, in parks, on playing fields and in bars."
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The Post story is unavailable online. But The Weekly Standard, in "There Goes the Neighborhood: Rage against the ‘breeders,’" reports that the Post article "generated 479 comments on the paper’s website before commenting was finally shut down. Readers ran about 60 to 40 against parents and children."
One of the gentler Post reader comments: "I am bloody sick of having my feet and Achilles tendon rammed by knobby-tired strollers the size of Smart Cars."
In Seattle, where dogs outnumber children 163,371 to 97,395, parks officials last November mediated a turf war between dog owners and other residents who wanted to share use of the five-acre Dr. Jose Rizal Park off-leash area on northwest Beacon Hill, according to The Seattle Times.
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Some Seattleites read it as a struggle between families and the childless. "I'm sure my dog is smarter, and more well-mannered, than 80% of children I see at any public parks," wrote one reader. Another wrote: "For those of us who have a dog instead of having a baby, I don't feel guilty at all about the tiny fraction of available acreage in King County parks offered as off-leash area to dog owners. It's a nice tradeoff for those of us who will never have children in King County schools, for instance, and are still forking out tax dollars for other people's kids' educations."
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Who are the child-free?
Some members of the new childless majority are awash in attitude, reveling a little, perhaps, after a lifetime's pressure to reproduce.
Exhibit one: an online invitation from a Meetup group, Childfree in Austin: "Wish Crate & Barrel would have a 'I'm doing my part for population control' shower registry option? ... Whether you're hitched but never hatched or single and don't believe in breeding, join a group of like-minded, interesting people for conversation, coffee, drinks, dinner parties and events around town."
A Meetup search for "childfree" yields 74 such groups internationally. "You had me at 'I've been fixed,'" is the motto of a Philadelphia club. "My dog is smarter than your honor student," quips the Austin contingent.
The snarkiness is "partly backlash against the incessant political adoration of families in the last 20 years. It's like family, shamly, I just want to be among adults," says Tim Iglesias, housing-law expert and professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
The childless majority is a big tent, though. Noisy resentment occupies a small corner. The demographic embraces many, varied groups: singles, empty-nest boomers, childless lesbians and gays, financially strapped young couples who are delaying parenthood, men and women who hoped to reproduce but never did and some who simply reject the option of parenthood.
Driving the drop-off in families are two powerful forces: the aging of baby boomers and the plummeting U.S. birthrate.
The birthrate is falling among women under 40 of every race and ethnicity, demographer Cheryl Russell says. The rate among American women age 20 to 24 in 2010 was at the lowest level ever recorded. There's no mystery why. The low rate is a product of hard times, Russell says. Just as during the Great Depression, young people want children but they're delaying reproduction.
Only a small proportion actually plans to be childless, she says. "If you ask people (in surveys) what their ideal number of children, is, almost nobody says 'zero' or 'one child.' In fact, the millennial generation is more likely to say 'three' or 'four' children than are older generations."
Some of the deliberately childless base their decision on an ethical refusal to add one more mouth to the already overburdened planet or on the belief that they'd make lousy parents. But plenty would rather just focus on other things, says Laura Scott, who calls herself "childfree."
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Scott, a longtime life coach, helps clients through decisions about reproduction. Her own decision not to reproduce led her to research attitudes and motives of childless people, beginning in 2003. She surveyed 171 childless women and men, publishing the results in a book, "Two Is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice." Her work is also found at The Childless by Choice Project.
The impulse to form communities of childless people may seem inexplicable to outsiders, but it makes perfect sense to Scott. People who want to reproduce and cannot often find life among families lonely and painful, she says. Also, childless people can feel left behind when old friends focus on their young families. "They're so busy with their kids and they've got a new bunch of friends they've found through their children."
For nonparents, the key to a rich life is in building a tribe, a family of affinity, Scott tells clients. "That's hard to do when you're living in a suburb surrounded by families and kids."
Limited by law
There's a big caveat, however, that child-free people and those catering to their quest for the ideal neighborhood will do well to remember: the law.
The Fair Housing Act forbids sellers, real-estate agents, landlords and others from discriminating against buyers or renters because of their family status if there's a child under 18 in the household.
"Consumers are free to try to find housing in which they won't be exposed to kids, but housing providers are subject to the legal limitations on whom they can exclude," Iglesias says. Consumers shouldn't be surprised if housing professionals decline to help them find a "child-free" neighborhood. They're likely to be prosecuted if they break the law.
June 1, 2012: The primary ZIP code for the East Austin area of Austin, Texas, is 78702. The ZIP was incorrectly identified in a previous version of this article.
Lighten up everyone. People need to learn how to tolerate others as well as be considerate of others. Its really not that tough, it goes a long way and has a huge positive impact. Heres some examples - whenever i am in a public place and there is a crying/screaming/wining child, I do what i can to help, if i am able, and there is an opportunity to do so. Try making funny faces or funny sounds if they are very young. or a little older, show them a novelty or trick. It takes so little to entertain children and is almost always welcomed by the parents who may find it difficult to entertain their children at that moment.
Parents, please be aware of the impact your children are having on people, when you are in public. Be considerate, if your child is being unruly, please, remove yourselves from others whenever possible, and try to gain some composure.
I am able to have children, but dont, wont, and love kids anyway.
People should be free to live the lifestyle they enjoy, while of course, making an effort to minimize disturbances to others.
I want to go deeper with some comments here with reference to people who have chosen to live without children as being 'selfish' !! Wow... how does THAT compute? If you have children, have no life of your own left, and are miserable, that's your choice. We have choice as well. Mine is to serve others working globally to enhance their lives with quality, grace, beauty and peace. These activities have been performed in the sacrifice of my own life, with caring and selflessness. I think it's overdue, that we can actually go into a public space ~ fine restaurant ~ coffee shop ~ cocktail lounge ~ and (Vegas) Casino, without your screaming little brats, that you refuse to train or monitor!! Many of these venues have no appeal for children, and are frequented by adults, desperately trying to talk to each other, or do business, while you ignore what is going on in your environment, and bring in your disruptive kids anyway! These venues cannot ask you to leave, because, then you'll start yelling 'poor service' or something as ridiculous, so all they can do is roll their eyes while having to serve you. I understand your need for attention, and bullying, since many of you as parents, are actually louder than your children, who are rude and interrupting, while trying to be heard over you. I especially love it when you give them a spoon to bang on the table...perhaps we should all do it. I for one have HAD it with all of you. If you cannot hold some decorum in your life, control your children, take them to the playground, or bring them up the proper way, ALL of us are going to suffer. It often takes a community to raise a child, and if you are going to annoy us by invading our spaces, shattering the air, and adding stress to our days, then we will have to rebel. You don't like it, and become quite belligerent if anything is said to you, but it's time you are told, and asked to leave... by the community !! And, the reports continue to warn about population growth... a very real concern which began in the 70's ... not new. It’s so nice to see that there may be some respite and sanctuary in these neighborhoods away from your insanity. I hope to see so many more. I think I’ll help.
Disillusioned ... again.
I know some people don't do well with children and that's o.k. if they know that. But don't go out of your way to "make a statement" about it and show the world how "intelligent" you are by keeping down the population! YOU’RE KIDDING RIGHT!!!! Our population is shrinking across the board in the U.S. and worldwide. I would welcome any childless couple into our family's life with our four wonderful, amazing, gifts of God children. These annoying children that you say you can't be around will be your future! What's wrong with investing in them! Sadly, I’ve met too many "no kids by choice" couples and I wouldn't mind that they don't want kids, but their ATTITUDES are OUT THERE. They act superior as if they made a super intelligent choice with super organized homes and high priced coffees!! Imagine if their parents decided the same for them! We would have one less person wanting a dog to replace a child, and a trendy neighborhood to indulge their every whim!! Sorry, learn to be with families if you are childless. I am with childless couples all the time and many of them love being with our big HAPPY nest of kids! We always have room for everybody, childless, child like, childish, and on and on! I am close to 50, had my last at 45 and if I were young enough, I would have lots more!
The childless can pat themselves on the back for population control, I suppose. As a proud father of three, I'll pat myself on the back for doing my part to make sure Social Security and Medicare stay solvent for these childless folks when they get old.
My youngest will graduate from high school in 2 yrs. We are looking for a new place to live when we retire. A childfree place sounds GREAT!!
I have said for a long time that there needs to be childfree stores so that I can shop in peace without people dragging the tired screaming children to the store; now it is not the child’s fault that their parents can’t plan ahead for their child’s needs (i.e.-naps & feedings, etc.). But, they have places for people to go and hang out with their children, so there should also be places you can go and hang out without children or people with other dogs, etc.
I should be able to spend my money & time where I choose to, and so should you!
The main topic of this article begs the question: whether or not it is acceptable for people to be able to choose the type of neighborhood they want to live in? That is the very basis of this article as I see it. My basic answer is: Yes. If you're spending your hard-earned money (or easily gained money) you should get what you pay for. It's as simple as that!
However, if we wish to open up the lid on this very neatly canned issue, there are some conflicts between the haves and the have nots. Those who have children and those who do not. Within these categories lie those who have them and didn't wish to and those who wanted them and for whatever reason did not have any. Such is life. We don't always get what we want and we don't always want what we have!
If we can take anything from this commentary and make it useful, it the fact that in this land of freedom, we should respect each other's wishes and try not to impose our reality upon our neighbors. If we could all do this, there would be no need for these cloned communities. One interrelated problem is that there is a definate disconnect between "freedom" and "responsibility". These two should always come as a package deal. The freedom to have children definately comes with the responsibilty for raising them to act as proper and responsibile members of society. In many cases this has apparently been a monumental or impossible task. For example, we see more children being pawned off on their grandparents after the parents have failed at the task of being responsible parents. In the frail, weakened, less mentally acute state of older years, what do we expect grandparents to be able to do with these children who are bouncing off the walls with freedom and alphabetical maladies such as ADHD, ADD, etc?? So they unleash them on the public and now we have people seeking refuge from communities sans children! Quite a conundrum! Good luck to us all.
Some of us are FREE of children. Free of the annoyance, free of the burden, free of the BS. We're childfree, not childless.
If you want/have kids great but, if you don’t want kids that great too. I hate seeing comments about how selfish people are just because they don’t want children. This is America where you have the freedom to make your own choices! Everyone does not share the same dreams and everyone is not meant to be a parent. For example, there are fathers/mothers that don’t take care of their children and fathers/mothers who are abusing their children. Do you really think it was a wise idea for them to reproduce? Stop the psychological bull crap about people who don’t want kids are narcissist and stop the "bible babble" about procreation. You think God wants everybody (including bad parents to procreate?) Life is not black and white; there is always room for shades of grey.