Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”?

This article at Club Troppo, We’re not full, has generated lots of interest on the net (e.g. here) because the writer argues that, contrary to what population growth opponents contend, Sydney is far from “bursting at the seams”.

The key evidence he offers is that many older suburbs that were settled in the 1960s and 70s, like Campbelltown, are losing population. This is largely because the children of those early settlers have grown up and left home, leaving mum and dad getting older and rattling around in a home with three or more bedrooms.

I completely agree that Sydney is not bursting at the seams, but regular readers of The Melbourne Urbanist will know instinctively that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye. These suburbs are not really “emptying out”.

The ageing donut

The ‘empty nester’ and ‘ageing in place’ phenomena are evident in other Australian cities too. In Melbourne, for example, this report shows there’s an “ageing donut” of middle ring suburbs about 10-15 km from the CBD where persons aged 65 years or older are significantly over-represented.

Older households in Australia are, on average, spoilt for space. This research shows more than 84% of them live in homes that are under-occupied (one or more spare bedrooms) when measured against the Canadian National Occupancy Standard. Almost half have two or more spare bedrooms.

It’s these sorts of numbers that have driven policy-makers to try and find ways to discourage ageing in place. It seems an awfully inefficient use of space when there’s an acknowledged shortage of housing in accessible locations.

Older households would be better off, the argument goes, if they were to move to locations with better access to public transport and shops. They’d also have lower maintenance costs. The community would be better off too because the vacated houses could be occupied by larger households or, even better, redeveloped for multi unit housing.

But contrary to much misinformed opinion, older households don’t want to move. One study found more than 90% of them want to stay put. They value their proximity to friends and family and they value familiarity with their home and neighbourhood.

Census data bears this out. For example, while more than 70% of Victorians aged 25-29 changed address between the 2001 and 2006 Censuses, less than 20% of those aged between 65 and 74 moved house over the same period. And moves of older persons are in any event more likely to be related to health issues or the death of a partner than to any desire to move to a smaller house or better location.

Empty nesters also utilise space more fully than is often appreciated. More than 90% regard the size of their home as efficient and suitable to their needs. One study reported that:

“People comment that following retirement they spend most of their time at home and they need space “to get away from each other and not to always be underfoot”, to follow hobbies and sometimes part-time paid work…… People state they need room for temporary residents – for frequent visits from children and grandchildren, other relatives and friends”.

A related study of older home owners found that 23% had one or more temporary residents at the time of the survey. While almost a fifth of these were grandchildren, more than half were adult children and visitors.

No, Sydney and our other cities are not “bursting at the seams”, as I’ve argued before (here, here and here). But, nor is it accurate to characterise the ageing donut suburbs as “emptying”. The vast bulk of older residents don’t plan on going anywhere soon voluntarily.

Still, there will be some households at the margin who would down-size if given the right incentives. As the great majority of older households own their homes outright, stamp duty is likely to be a major obstacle, especially in Victoria. A tax related to the development potential of properties would provide a significant incentive to down-size, although that’s not very likely.

But I suspect the biggest barrier is the price of alternative housing – as one participant at this conference remarked, “a unit in Box Hill costs as much as a house”. As I’ve discussed previously, constraints on the supply of multi-unit housing in established suburbs is a very serious, albeit difficult, issue that governments have to get serious about.

Although she was dismissed by Club Troppo’s writer, the author of this Government research report has the most realistic take on this issue. Talking about the ageing donut ring, she says: “over time such suburbs will see an ageing and dying off of older populations and a renewal as new households move into the area”.


11 Comments on “Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”?”

  1. […] Alan Davies at the Melbourne Urbanist explains what’s behind low population densities in the ‘ageing donut’ suburbs built in the […]

  2. Don Arthur says:

    Alan – It seems to me the problem is finding ways to help older residents to stay in the same neighbourhoods while, at the same time, renewing suburbs designed to meet the needs of another time.

    I think you’re right to dispute the idea that ’empty nesters’ would be better off if we could cram them into one or two bedroom flats.

    But if people were offered affordable opportunities to move out of houses designed for families with children and into something designed around their current lifestyle, many might be happy to move.

    It seems to me that there’s a high cost involved in waiting for older people to “die off” before doing anything about renewal.

    One of those costs is the loss of local services and retail as the population declines. Another is increased pressure to build on the fringe.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks Don – My main objective was to point out that older households are conservative. They’ve invested many years in their street, in their house and in their style of living. So while population is declining, the number of households isn’t. They’ll lose something important in their lives if they move.

      Having said that, given the right incentives,I’ve no doubt some would down-size. After all, some picked up sticks in the 70s and 80s and moved to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Surf Coast, etc. Don’t know how significant this trend was, but probably not very.

      A key motivator then was partly weather but primarily much cheaper housing. Households could retire, get a better house in a beachside area and have considerable cash left over from the sale of their Sydney or Melbourne property.

      But those circumstances don’t prevail anymore, either in Qld or in the suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne. In Melbourne at least, unit and house prices in accessible locations aren’t that different. And the scope for finding a smaller unit or townhouse close to a household’s current dwelling is not as easy as is often assumed.

      I wonder if there might be some potential in a scheme where older households are assisted with the subdivision and redevelopment of their own property? There’s a big risk issue in there that would have to be dealt with of course, but it might suit some.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that Sydney’s 1960s suburbs are dotted with abandoned houses. The falling population is a result of a decline in the number of people in each house.

    As you point out “while population is declining, the number of households isn’t.”

    Something I might have said in my post is that demographic trends are exacerbating both the shortage of housing and problems with parking and congestion. We need more houses for the same number of people. And 100 childless adults own more cars and do more driving than 50 adults and 50 school age children.

    I think you’re right about people’s conservatism. And it’s entirely reasonable for people to want to stay put for all the reasons you mention.

    For people who are reasonably healthy I don’t imagine having two people in a three or four bedroom house is any kind of hardhip. As Wulff, Healy and Reynolds put it: “One of the established tenets of residential mobility research points to the fact that too much space is hardly ever viewed as a problem by a household.”

    But what holds for individuals in a suburb doesn’t necessarily hold for residents collectively. The story I was telling with my photos is that local retailers are likely to suffer when populations and disposable incomes decline. Government services may also decline. And this reduces the amenity of the suburb.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Those are all good points. I see the decline in local services as an inevitable part of a transitional process that should turn around in time as the existing population is replaced by new residents.

      As these houses are vacated, some of them will be bought by families who need the space and don’t want to go to the periphery. But there is also an opportunity for redevelopment at (somewhat) higher densities.

  4. Russ says:

    Alan, as much as I agree with the benefits and barriers related to older residents downsizing, the two maps you display above don’t show it as a major problem. If anything, they show the opposite. Pretty much every suburb in your “ageing donut” had an increase in population in that census period. It is the ring outside of that, of the slightly younger generation (those my parents age), that is showing the decrease in population.

    But while that age group are “empty-nesters”, they hardly look up one day and wonder where the children went. There is a long transition in household size, one where children leave (for university, or work, or travel), but also return to an old room that is largely kept intact. My parents are passively looking at down-sizing now, but it has been 20 years since their eldest child first moved out. While statistically there is a declining population, that strikes me as a misrepresentation of the children as “former residents” when they are really “part-time residents” in rapidly shifting living arrangements.

    That also suggests to me that if the worry is the length of time it takes to make this transition, you should focus your attention on living arrangements for the younger generation, the uncertainty of which is a decisive factor in their parents keeping their home for longer.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think you’re right. With hindsight, the term “decline” is too specific – it should be suburbs that are standing still or growing very slowly.

      There were only six SLAs out of 79 in Melbourne that actually lost population over 2001-06 and they all lost less than 1% over the five years. And 60 SLAs grew by less than 2%. OTOH, there were only six SLAs that grew by more than 10%,including Melton East, Werribee Sth and Docklands which each grew by over 20% (or 4% p.a.).

      When and if I get time I’ll identify those SLAs that have both a slow growth rate and a particularly high proportion of older persons.

      I think your point about the long transition is very important and insightful – has cricket prepared you for seeing the long view? 🙂

  5. baby boomer says:

    I faced the decision to remain in place or downsize. The new apartments with equal access to amenities cost more than I was likely to sell my 4 bedroom 40 year old house for. Why sacrifice my self for the common good? I stayed in place.

  6. […] but the key driver of growth for that group, cheap housing, no longer applies. As I’ve discussed previously, the great bulk of retirees prefer to age in place. The value of retirees as an engine of regional […]

  7. […] was imagined that “empty nesters” in established suburbs would sell their large houses to young families and relocate to smaller […]

  8. […] There’re many reasons why that might not be the case — in fact it seems they prefer to hang on to their large house rather than relinquish it for use by a […]


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