Housing debates have almost entirely ignored residential age segregation as one of the potential consequences of the ongoing housing affordability crisis. Is age segregation something we should be worried about?

By Albert Sabater, Nissa Finney and Elspeth Graham, Centre for Population Change

A central housing policy issue in the UK is the so-called 'affordability crisis' – the fact that both owneroccupied and private rental housing have become increasingly unaffordable, particularly for young adults. While the UK's affordability crisis has been developing slowly for decades, house prices rose steeply in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the potential consequences for the age make-up of different communities has so far been neglected.

An increase in residential separation of older and younger adults in England and Wales is evident: since the 1990s, neighbourhoods have become less age-mixed. In 1991, 33 districts (around 10%) had moderate levels of residential age segregation; by 2011 this had risen to 190 (almost 60% of districts).

Should this be seen as a problem? Conventional wisdom perhaps suggests that residential age segregation is expected and unproblematic given that people have different housing needs at different stages of life, and housing types tend to be clustered. However, residential age segregation can be considered, in many ways, similar to ethnic, racial or social class segregation. It is likely to emerge from an intricate interplay between changing individual/household preferences at different life stages on the one hand, and external constraints on the other, with housing affordability being particularly influential.

Thus, increasing age segregation between generations can be considered problematic if it reflects an inability of households to access the housing that they need. Age segregation might also be seen as problematic in its effects: the spatial separation of people of different ages can hinder essential opportunities for older and younger individuals to meet and interact, with associated policy implications for social cohesion and the organisation of society.

One of the main mechanisms of residential segregation is the varying access of households to housing. Under conditions of housing shortage, households compete for homes and locations, hence their strength within the housing market depends on their resources (eg, income, social contacts, knowledge, and political power). Because the construction of new housing in the UK has been decreasing steadily since the 1970s, leading to a substantial housing shortfall, the main effect of policies that stimulate housing demand – such as Help-to-Buy, Buy-to-Let etc – is to increase house prices rather than supply.

In such housing market conditions, it is no surprise that levels of housing affordability have decreased significantly in many areas as average house prices have outstripped average earnings, with the result that many younger people and those on low incomes are priced out of the market. This can be seen in the reduction in the number of first-time buyers and the decreasing home ownership rates among younger adults. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, over half of the 25 to 34 age group were home owners in 2001 (59.6%), whereas this had declined to just over a third by 2014 (35.8%). There were also reductions in home ownership over the same period among the 35 to 44 age group (from 73.9% to 58.8%).

Younger adults generally have fewer resources than older adults to afford housing, although there are also stark socioeconomic differences within generations. These variations in housing affordability are contributing to concentrations of populations of similar age and socioeconomic status in different areas. Those with lower economic resources face restricted access to certain areas, limiting their choice, whereas for those with greater economic resources housing preferences can take precedence. Housing (dis)advantages between older and younger adults have therefore become a potential source of intergenerational conflict. Nonetheless, there remains a need for a better understanding of the geographic significance of housing (un)affordability for trends of residential age segregation over time.

Our analyses indicate that the probability of an older adult (65 and over) sharing the same neighbourhood with a younger adult (aged 25-44) has decreased over time, with evidence of higher residential age segregation as housing affordability decreases across each neighbourhood in England and Wales. While this relationship could be expected to be driven by the effect of London house prices, our results indicate a similar association between housing (un)affordability and residential age segregation outside London.

So, this is not just a London phenomenon and it's not just an urban phenomenon. Our results show that the gradient of increasing residential age segregation as affordability decreases is more evident in rural areas than in urban areas. But it is also clear that neighbourhoods in both rural and urban areas with lower levels of affordability are becoming more residentially age-segregated. This pattern of increased residential separation between older and younger adults indicates that there is an important socioeconomic dimension to residential age segregation, and that age is a significant dimension along which residential neighbourhoods with different levels of housing (un)affordability are becoming segregated.

The current policy focus in the UK and elsewhere on 'ageing in place' highlights one possible mechanism expected to increase residential age segregation, but the lack of affordable housing is also playing a key role. Dramatic increases in house prices relative to earnings and restrictions on mortgage borrowing imposed since the financial crisis are resulting in an increasing number of young adults facing the prospect of a lifetime of renting. Indeed, evidence suggests that residential aspirations have been significantly hampered by recent housing market failures, just as public resources have become constrained and employment conditions have worsened. In the UK context, these changes are likely to be reshaping not only the tenure composition of the housing stock, with more focus on private renting as the main alternative to home ownership, but also the residential distribution of older and younger adults.

The potential socio-spatial consequences of increasing age segregation are considerable. The inability of many young people to access desired housing can affect other aspects of life, such as starting a family and employment opportunities. Moreover, increasing residential separation by age implies reduced inter-generational interaction that could threaten social cohesion. The spatial separation of older and younger adults is not only likely to be reducing cross-age interactions outside the family but also has substantial implications in terms of socio-political change, including competition between age groups for limited public resources to support the interests, agendas, services, and institutions that best meet age-specific needs.