Big houses and baby boomers

Baby boomers have had a bit of an image problem lately. The ‘boomer’ generation born in the post-war period is (by and large) prospering after a prolonged period of economic growth (data geeks might want to refer to this (£) fascinating graph by the FT).

Younger generations, meanwhile, are increasingly fed up: fewer good jobs and pensions, and an unaffordable housing market that holds them back.*

It’s almost universally acknowledged that soaring house prices played a major role in helping the boomers to prosper. The story is familiar – a young couple buy a modest starter home within their means in the 1970s, trade up in the 1980s and then see their assets triple, quadruple, or even more. Some live in large homes, staying put after the kids move out. Others even buy second homes.

For today’s young couples it’s a tougher story. House prices are way out of line with incomes, so to get on the ladder they need to borrow huge amounts. Most couples rent, and will do for the foreseeable future.

While this picture is familiar, what to do about it is less clear cut. Suggestions that older people should be compelled to move out of their homes, effectively to share the housing space and wealth around more equally, are met with outrage and indignation by a generation that feels it is not to blame for modern economic problems. Most of them have no desire to ‘downsize’.

But there can be a positive case for trading down to more suitable accommodation. An easier to manage, cheaper home in a convenient location is an attractive proposition. Homes built with older people in mind – well designed, energy efficient, with scope for social activities and care and support available for those who need it – can deliver fantastic health and wellbeing benefits as well as helping to unlock the housing market.

Sadly, the right kind of housing just isn’t widely available. Shelter’s new policy report, ‘A better fit?’ examines how the older generation needs better housing options that meet their aspirations, and how the market should start delivering them.

Crucially, planners and developers need to get their heads around this market and start recognising the benefits it can deliver. Blockages in the planning system are holding things up. Older people themselves need good information and advice about their housing options and to start planning in advance what will be suitable for them later in life. Local authorities can enable this.

The population is ageing, fast. Time for the housing system to catch up.

*David Willets’ book The Pinch and Howker & Malik’s Jilted Generation are well worth a read for more detail on this topic.