Designing and building for and with younger generations

Roof top image used for article 'Why healthy homes make economic sense'

The generation born between 1981 and 1996 – dubbed Millennials – have been the focus of many media reports over recent years, particularly when it comes to housing.

In 2017, the media fascination with this age group and their homes reached new heights after an Australian property developer suggested young people should stop buying avocado toast and put the money towards a house deposit instead. The comments caused a stir online, with avocados soon becoming a symbol synonymous with Millennials – and many pointing out the obvious flaw in the developer’s calculations.

But what is the reality when it comes to younger people and the housing market? With the Millennial generation now well into their thirties, attention has begun to turn to the younger Generation Z to help the construction industry build better homes and communities for renters and buyers of the future.

Millennials, Generation Z and the housing market

Recent statistics show the average age of first-time buyers has risen from 31 to 33 between 2007 and 2017. Over the same decade, the number of 25 to 34-year-olds owning their own home has dropped from 55% to 38%.

But while many commentators in the media put the changing demographic of homeowners down to rising house prices, this only part of the story.

Aspirations are changing. According to The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019, traditional signals of adulthood – such as buying a home or having children – are no longer topping younger people’s list of ambitions.

Although 52% of millennials want to earn high salaries or be wealthy, they’re more likely to want to spend their money seeing the world. The research showed 57% prioritise travel, compared to 49% buying a home and 39% having a baby. And the move away from settling down is also reflected in the changing ways of working, with 84% of Millennials stating they would consider joining the gig economy, citing attractions such as more money, flexible hours and a better work-life balance.

Elsewhere though, statistics suggest the younger Generation Z do want to get on the property ladder, with the Brum Youth Trends 2019 Report showing this was a priority for over 71% of people born between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s.

Involving young people in the built environment

Even when comparing just a few of the statistics that exist around Millennials, Generation Z and home ownership with the various media headlines on the subject, it’s easy to see how a lot of things don’t match up, with reports failing to paint a full picture of the reality.

Built Environment Skills in Schools works with schools and colleges across the UK to help encourage younger people to consider working in the construction industry. We’re all too aware of the huge staffing shortage we’re facing, and it’s vital we engage and inspire school and college students to consider different training and employment opportunities within the construction sector. However, it is important to recognise that this is not a skills gap; it’s a mindset gap. The insight, values and lived experiences that young people can bring to the industry shouldn’t simply be dismissed as challenging or irrelevant characteristics.

One thing that comes up again and again is that younger people don’t see it as an industry for them. All too often, businesses don’t speak their language or share messages that resonate with them. And when the conversation comes up around younger people and the housing market, it’s another example of where assumptions are made and choices are based on the source of the money, without speaking to these future taxpayers, homeowners and citizens directly.

If we can find out what the priorities are for young people and involve them in everything from the design of homes to our parks, shopping centres, schools and more, then not only can we build things that meet their needs and desires, we can also take important steps in making them see they have a role to play in making a difference in our sector.

What do younger people want from the built environment?

One of the recommendations from the Brum Youth Trends 2019 Report was: “It doesn’t go on the map, until young people say so. When new building developments spring up in the city, young people should be involved at all stages, from consultation on design to scrutiny over progress.” This process of creating ‘critical friends’ is something that Built Environment Skills In Schools advocate to all the employers we work with, and so many young people are keen for the opportunity.

By asking young people what they would do to improve their city, a couple of noteworthy suggestions around wellbeing and connections were made in the report. Firstly, the addition of social seats. Whether on buses, in parks or stations, the young people questioned for the report saw these as a way to aid social connections and tackle divides in communities. Secondly, integrating 5G was important to make the city safer and easier to navigate, whether by lighting up canals, interactive maps, or digital touch display boards.

But this is just the start. Involve different generations in the design and build of our neighbourhoods and all kinds of positive changes will take place. As mentioned in a previous article – Why we need to change the narrative around construction – the construction industry is a very male-dominated industry, and our homes and cities are a reflection of that. We need to attract a more diverse workforce, and part of that is involving more young people in the built environment – not just to work, but to consult when new developments are taking place. One of the visible effects of this disconnect is the growing trend for “product dissatisfaction” as younger generations find that available properties (to rent or buy) don’t meet their expectations for efficiency, sustainability or space.

Whether people are old or young, by speaking to them and taking time to understand their aspirations, wants and needs, we can use these invaluable insights to build homes and communities that work better and enhance users’ day-to-day lives and wellbeing.

Originally written for Saint-Gobain Multicomfort:

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