As millennials slowly age into family life, they’re faced with two daunting financial challenges: the rising cost of housing and the high cost of child care. One way to deal with these challenges is to use technology-enabled remote work so parents can live and work in cheaper small towns like their elders did generations ago.
Annual growth in home prices averaged 5.1 percent in October, which continues to outpace income growth, as tight inventories and a dearth of new construction put upward pressure on pricing. Even with some increase in construction of single-family housing, the median size of a new home continues to increase as well — so prices are not falling as they might if new homes were more modest.
Just as recent development of apartments has been driven by luxury rentals in walkable urban areas, it’s possible that development of single-family homes could be driven by high-priced homes on “tear-down” lots in desirable areas and by luxury townhomes. With the construction labor market remaining tight, there’s no sign of new affordable supply on the horizon.
At the same time, the high cost of child care, especially in expensive urban areas, is straining family budgets. As a new parent, this is something I have felt in my own family’s budget this year. We live in Atlanta, not a high-priced city like New York or San Francisco, and yet our child-care center costs around $300 a week. That’s a big hit to a family budget, yet when you do the math on what the facility charges on a per-hour basis — $7.50 — and factor in all of its costs — from labor to rent to utilities to insurance — it’s hardly a high-profit operation. And it’s unlikely that automation is coming for diaper changing or bottle feeding any time soon. Demand still exceeds supply: The center has no openings for infants until 2018.
What’s a dual-earning, urban family to do? If one parent has a job that can be done remotely, perhaps there’s a radical solution: move to a much cheaper small town, with one parent working and the other one staying at home. The household would trade two white-collar urban jobs (along with high housing costs and high-priced day care) for one white-collar remote job (with cheap housing and no day-care costs). It may represent a radical culture change, especially if both parents are well-educated with good jobs. But the family might come out way ahead financially and in quality of life, once we factor in soft factors like commutes and stress.
Family economics are ultimately dictated by two constraints — family finances and the needs of children. For decades, because manufacturing jobs were tied to factory towns and white-collar jobs were tied to urban centers, that meant living relatively close to work. For families with tighter budgets, that might have meant longer and longer commutes as housing costs dictated living in a far-flung suburb or exurb. High immigration and a large baby-boomer work force gave employers bargaining power; wages did not keep up with housing costs.
Today, some of this has changed. Fewer workers, especially young workers, are in manufacturing. The vast majority of job growth is in the service sector. Technology enables remote work in the service sector, especially in information-related jobs, in ways it never has before. And as baby boomers retire and immigration remains constrained, employees find themselves with more bargaining power over their employers. It won’t help every family, but for a growing numbers of workers, remote work and a radical lifestyle change may be the ticket out of the urban rat race.
Is it ideal? Perhaps not. Smaller cities and towns lack many of the cultural and professional amenities of larger urban areas. But the prospect of being a “mega-commuter” in the cheap outskirts of a large metro area, or having two parents work long hours to pay the mortgage, is hardly ideal either. For some families, financial constraints and technology might make the future of raising kids look a lot like the post-war past.
Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist.