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.
"What's wrong with a few kids?" Everyone is not meant to be a parent, sadly, most who aren't don't know it. Why do you think there are so many abused, abandoned and unwanted kids out there? I for one would not make a good parent and thankfully I realized that in my 20's. I could go the rest of my life and never see another kid and it would not bother me one bit. But for the people who love them and want them, more power to them!