America’s “cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids”

Derek Thompson discusses the decrease in children in large American cities:

Cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids. College graduates descend into cities, inhale fast-casual meals, emit the fumes of overwork, get washed, and bounce to smaller cities or the suburbs by the time their kids are old enough to spell. It’s a coast-to-coast trend: In Washington, D.C., the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined. Meanwhile, San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S…

But the economic consequences of the childless city go deeper. For example, the high cost of urban living may be discouraging some couples from having as many children as they’d prefer. That would mean American cities aren’t just expelling school-age children; they’re actively discouraging them from being born in the first place. In 2018, the U.S. fertility rate fell to its all-time low. Without sustained immigration, the U.S. could shrink for the first time since World World I. Underpopulation would be a profound economic problem—it’s associated with less dynamism and less productivity—and a fiscal catastrophe. The erosion of the working population would threaten one great reward of liberal societies, which is a tax-funded welfare and eldercare state to protect individuals from illness, age, and bad luck…

Finally, childless cities exacerbate the rural-urban conundrum that has come to define American politics. With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis.  The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes, about seven times the margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Meanwhile, rural voters draw indignant power from their perceived economic weakness. Trump won with majority support in areas that produce just one-third of GDP by showering hate and vitriol on cities that attract immigration and capital…

For those young and middle-aged Americans who are having sex and having children, the smaller cities and suburbs might simply be a better place to live—and not just for the obvious reason that they’re more cost-friendly for the non-rich. Perhaps parents are clustering in suburbs today for the same reason that companies cluster in rich cities: Doing so is more efficient. Suburbs have more “schools, parks, stroller-friendly areas, restaurants with high chairs, babysitters, [and] large parking spaces for SUV’s,” wrote Conor Sen, an investor and columnist for Bloomberg. It’s akin to a division of labor: America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents. The childless city may be inescapable.

The book and film Children of Men suggested people in the near future would not have children for some uncontrollable reason but perhaps cities will have fewer children by the collective individual and social choices of urban dwellers.

This also has implications for the American Dream which has tended to suggest parents will work hard and pass along benefits to future generations. Not having as many direct beneficiaries of actions could alter how people think about the future: it is one thing to project changes for a community (“this is good for Chicago’s future, whoever happens to live here”) versus thinking about more direct benefits which could also help a community (“my children will be better off – and they can continue to live in Chicago and benefit others”).

Final thought: this is a rare time when someone could claim the suburbs are “more efficient” for raising children. On one hand, I see the point: the suburban infrastructure has been built around children for decades. On the other hand, this idea of “efficiency” is an odd one as children can also be raised in cities and what Americans value for children and families is often closely tied to perceptions of cities and suburbs.

Guide to finding and maintaining love in a tiny house

Living in a tiny house may just require approaching a relationship in some new ways:

Tip #2: Consider dating exclusively within the tiny house community…

Tip #3: You’re going to need to talk about your stuff…

Tip #7: Let go of any previously held notions of privacy…

Tip #9: Decide how important those precious “child-free” moments really are to you…

Tip #12: There will need to be some indoctrination involved.

Given the propensity of more Americans to live alone plus other indicators (like social media) that suggest Americans prefer relationships on their own terms, living together in such a small space may be asking too much. Tip #8 does provide an out by suggesting two tiny houses can be parked side by side but the larger issue remains: how many Americans want to be that close? Isn’t physical space often viewed as something that is good for modern relationships, something that gives those involved room to be independent and be fulfilled outside of their close relationships?

The tiny house movement is still really small at this point so it would be difficult to look at how relationships in these settings fare compared to relationships lived in larger homes. Additionally, just because one lives in a tiny house doesn’t mean that those involved can’t be elsewhere – this all assumes private home space is the most important space in life (a common American assumption) but people in other countries and societies have some different ideas about how this can work.

British grandparents believe their grandkids would rather get advice from Google

British grandparents thinks Google has replaced them as sources for advice:

Almost nine out of every 10 UK grandparents claimed their grandchildren failed to ask them for advice for simple tasks, instead turning to online channels such as Google, YouTube and Wikipedia for information.

Answers on how to boil an egg, iron a shirt and even details on their own family history are now easily found by younger generations glued to their smartphones, tablet computers or laptops, according to research commissioned by cleaning products firm Dr Beckmann.

“Grandparents believe they are being sidelined by Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and the huge resource of advice available on the internet,” spokeswoman Susan Fermor said in a statement…

The survey of 1,500 grandparents also found that children chose to research what life was like for their elderly relatives in their youth rather than asking the grandparents themselves, with just 33 percent of grandparents having been asked: ‘What was it like when you were young?’.

Almost two-thirds of grandparents felt their traditional roles were becoming less and less important in modern family life, with 96 percent claiming that they asked far more questions of their own grandparents when they were young.

I’m not sure how valid this survey is but assuming the results are good, I think the key is in the last paragraph of the story. It is isn’t necessarily the Internet or Google or another website that is causing trouble. These new technologies are part of a larger society that grandparents believe doesn’t have much room for them. On one hand, this may be a common complaint of grandparents: people in the newer generations aren’t paying enough attention to them. This could be backed up by 96% saying they were more likely to question their grandparents. On the other hand, perhaps this is evidence of significant shift away from learning from one’s elders and turning to digitized information sources. Why go through the trouble of asking a human being when you can just watch a YouTube video or type a sentence into Google? Either way, grandparents still have these perceptions.

Generation gap: younger Americans don’t want Baby Boomer’s heirlooms/stuff

The Chicago Tribune profiles an interesting generation gap: Baby Boomers are worried their children and young adults in general aren’t interested in their family heirlooms and acquired stuff:

Passing down heirlooms from one generation to the next has long been tradition. But Copeland and many other baby boomers fear that their children and grandchildren will end up tossing the family treasures like a worn-out pair of gym shoes.

“A lot of young people are so transient; they don’t stay anywhere very long. They rent apartments and don’t own anything,” said Copeland, whose sons live at home. “They don’t want to be tied down to family heirlooms that don’t mean anything to them.”

Julie Hall, a North Carolina liquidation appraiser known as The Estate Lady, said this has become a dilemma for a growing number of middle-age people who are trying to come to terms with a harsh reality: Often what they consider to be jewels, their children and grandchildren see as junk.

“Though they have the best intentions, boomers have a tendency to keep too much stuff for subsequent generations, though the kids have already told them they don’t want anything,” said Hall, author of the book “The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.”

There are several social factors at work here which are noted in the article:

1. There are generational shifts at work from those who were alive during the Great Depression to Baby Boomers to Millennials. This affects things like consumption patterns, family patterns, and where people live.

2. We now live in a more disposable, cheaper culture. For example, the story talks about Millennials preferring IKEA furniture. Such goods are relatively cheap, come in a limited set of colors that match a number of things, and can be traded, discarded, given away, or sold fairly easily.

3. It sounds like Millennials are looking to have less stuff in general. While Baby Boomers might consider these things heirlooms, Millennials see it as clutter that must be stored somewhere and moved again in the future. Certain items may have value to a family but what good is it if it just sits there without being used much? The article suggests this may be due to younger Americans living in smaller spaces (while Baby Boomers have plenty of room in their larger homes) but it could also be tied to Millennials placing a higher value on electronics like laptops and smartphones. It has been argued Millennials are more interested in these personal electronic devices than cars and houses, traditional American consumer goods. Also, Millennials would be more interested in debating how someone’s digital files get passed down.

4. The article doesn’t mention this at all but I wonder if this reflects changing family structures. Heirlooms matter not because they are objectively valuable but because they hold sentimental value. Perhaps Millennials have less sentimental interest in objects? A positive spin on this would be that Millennials value personal relationships more but a darker interpretation could be that they simply haven’t had the same kind of deep relationships that would give objectives meaning. Plus, more Americans are living alone and this could make it harder to endow certain objects with enough meaning for a family member to feel the same way.

5. Another thing the article doesn’t suggest: perhaps Baby Boomers had too much stuff to start with. Is this the sort of problem that only arises in a culture that revolves around consumption and materialism?

American housing reacts to changes in family and household structures

After looking at some data about how much American families and households have changed in recent decades, Kaid Benfield asks an interesting question about how American housing might change to meet these realities:

So, as many of us connect with families in one way or another on Thanksgiving, I can’t help but observe that there really is no “typical” American family living under the same roof these days, if there ever was.  Rather, we have a diverse and changing array of household types and circumstances that smart planners and businesses will seek to accommodate.  The census data show that the growing parts of the housing market are nonfamily households, smaller households including people living alone, unmarried couples, single-parent households with kids, and older households.  The declining parts of the market are larger families, married couples, two-parent households, and couples with only one breadwinner, though each of these categories clings to a significant share of the total.

Interesting stuff, and mostly good for those of us who would like to see less sprawl and more walkable neighborhoods.  But also a bit complex.

The typical answer I’ve seen online to this question is to point to indicators that suggest younger (see here and here) and older adults (see here) will be seeking out denser housing. This may be true. I think we could also argue that American housing has already shifted to these realities in recent decades through several new options.

1. The rise of townhouses, particularly in the suburbs. These have the advantages of allowing for single-family home ownership, the ability to pay an association to maintain the housing as well as help protect property values, and denser housing which frees up more open space.

2. The rise of condos in both suburbs in cities. In suburbs, this has similar benefits to townhouses. In cities, this has been a boon for redevelopment and the movement of people with money into urban cores.

3. New housing products for older Americans beyond group homes including developments like the Del Webb communities and retirement complexes that include owned units (whether more like condos or detached single-family units).

4. More interest in tiny houses and tiny apartments (see this latest example from San Francisco).

5. Some New Urbanist communities and neighborhoods that allow for denser housing.

Perhaps the argument here about housing is about a matter of degrees; there have been changes in American housing in recent decades but it hasn’t necessarily been mostly anti-sprawl.

Note: I’ve been following some of these trends about changing family and household composition. For example, check out these posts (here and here) about more Americans living in single-person households.

The four cultural camps of American parenting

A sociologist argues there are four cultural parenting camps in the United States:

The Faithful, who make up 20 percent of American parents and are largely white and middle class, believe strongly that “God’s timeless truths” about sex, marriage, and life remain as true today as they have always been. They seek to defend these truths in the broader culture and, failing that, aim to “buffer themselves from progressive currents enough that their families will remain faithful to their traditions.” Their most important parenting goal is “raising children to reflect God’s will and purpose.”…

The Engaged Progressives, who make up 21 percent of American parents and are whiter, better educated, and more affluent than the population as a whole, march to a very different beat than the Faithful, at least ideologically. They steer clear of organized religion, believe strongly in the virtues of personal freedom, choice, and tolerance, and seek to form their children into independent-minded adults. But these individualistic values are also tempered by a commitment among progressive parents to the “golden rule” and the values that go along with this rule: honesty, openness, empathy, and compassion for the vulnerable. Their cultural commitments point them in a Blue direction (82 percent reported they would not vote for the Republican presidential nominee).

Ironically, whatever their ideological differences with the Faithful, Engaged Progressives live lives that look surprisingly like their ideological opposites. Although they have fewer children (2.46) than the Faithful, they are almost as married (80 percent are married), about as likely to have stay-at-home-mothers when preschool children are in the home as are the Faithful (58 percent compared to 65 percent), and they also highly engaged parents, enjoying—for instance—more meals with their children than the average parent. So, in pursuit of progressive ideals, Engaged Progressives rely on largely neotraditional strategies: namely, marriage and an intensive parenting style.

The same cannot be said about the other two cultural camps of American parents detailed in the report: “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers”, who make up, respectively, 19 and 27 percent of American parents. Although a slight majority of the Detached are married (67 percent), this largely white, largely downscale group of parents feel incapable or unable to exert much of an influence on their children’s lives. They spend comparatively little time interacting with their children, do not eat daily with their parents, are disconnected from the religious and civic fabric of their communities, and instead allow the television and other outside influences to set the cultural agenda for their children. Indeed, Bowman contends that the Detached parents “lack the vision, vitality, certainty, and self-confidence required to embrace any agenda” for their children. Not surprisingly, this camp has little interest in or involvement with politics.

By contrast, the American Dreamers—who are disproportionately working class and minority—have high hopes for their children. Politically, they are divided, with black and Hispanic Dreamers tilting Democratic, and white Dreamers titling Republican. They believe strongly in education, their children are optimistic about their educational prospects, and they want their children to make good on the American Dream. But given that marriage is fragile in this camp (only 64 percent are married), they have less income and education than most parents, and they are more likely to hail from communities with anemic religious and civic institutions, it’s not clear that American Dreamers can make good on the big dreams they have for their children.

A few thoughts about this:

1. Read the PDF report here and see more about the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia here.

2. Sociologist Annette Lareau suggested in Unequal Childhoods that social class led to two parenting styles: concerted cultivation and accomplishment of natural growth. Are Lareau’s two styles spread across these four new categories or was Lareau missing something big?

3. There are some interesting implications here for the culture wars. The suggestion in this article is that both The Faithful and The Engaged Progressives follow similar patterns even if they hold to different ideologies and tend to fight among themselves. Is this because of social class? Education? Race? Current or lingering effects of religion? Living in suburbs and/or wealthier areas?

4. When I see typologies like this, I always wonder about how many categories can and should be created. Is four cultural family types enough or too many? A lower number seems better for having more coherent categories and it is easier to discuss the findings. However, if there are actually smaller clusters of families, then more types may be needed to be more precise and better describe reality.

A few graphs suggest people in wealthier countries spend more on housing, less on food

Look at some graphs of how families in different countries around the world spend their money and a few things stand out:

Two big ideas for the road: Houses and food. Everybody needs somewhere to live and something to eat. But you can learn a lot about a country by looking at housing and food spending. Here’s how the U.S., where middle-class families spend about a third of their income on housing, compare to the developing economies in this survey…
I don’t want to push this point too far, because these sort of surveys have obvious limitations. Tremendous income inequality in developing countries with hundreds of millions of people makes it impossible to tell the story of the frothy middle class *in one graph.* But the bigger picture is clear and uncontroversial. When families earn more income, they can afford to eat more and buy more clothes, but the real shift is from those essentials to bigger better houses, education, and health care.

Interesting. However, I wonder much of this differs by country based on political, economic, and cultural values. Clearly, items like food are necessary for survival. But once citizens reach a certain income threshold, I assume there are differences across countries in how they spend this more discretionary income. For example, in the United States, transportation is a relatively high cost because of a reliance on automobiles. Similarly, people in the US might spend relatively less on food but how much of this is due to policies that help keep food prices low? More broadly, don’t government policies affect whether people have to spend more in certain categories; for example, they might spend less out of their income for health care but if that is due to paying higher taxes which cover more health care costs, then such figures of discretionary spending might be misleading.

Perhaps this situation is ripe for a cross-cultural experiment. Go to different countries and give people a scenario: suppose you are given a decent sum of money (might differ by country) and then ask how people would spend that money. What emerges as a common need or want?