Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next. ~ William Ralph Inge
Most Americans grow up in suburbs. Forty-four million people live in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million live in their suburbs. And suburbia isn’t exclusively a white domain as it’s often depicted. One-third of suburbanites across the country are racial or ethnic minorities, up from 19 percent in 1990. Students in suburban public schools are 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American and 6 percent Asian American. For better or worse, the suburbs have reflected American society.
In fact, suburbia has been so popular that, according to the American Farmland Trust, the US loses more than 1.4 million acres of farmland, forest and wetlands to suburban sprawl each year. Between 1982 and 2007, suburbia devoured an area the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined.
But like Truman Burbank from The Truman Show, there are thousands of kids who grew up in the suburbs and want out. Like Truman they want to be explorers. Or visit Fiji. Only their Fiji isn’t in the middle of the Pacific. It could be just across country in one of the increasing number of cities that are eschewing the master-planned generic nature of American suburbia.
The movement of young adults out of the suburbs is now contributing to what economists and urban planners are calling the early stages of the death of suburbia. And the symptoms of its demise are pretty obvious.
They include the following economic indicators:
No one wants a McMansion anymore
In August 2016, Bloomberg quoted the real-estate site Trulia saying that sales of huge (between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet), cheaply constructed, off-the-plan mansions have dropped dramatically in 85 of the country’s 100 biggest cities. In one cited example, in Fort Lauderdale, the extra money that buyers were expected to be willing to pay to own a McMansion fell by 84% from 2012 to 2016. A Business Insider article recently stated that the “youngest generations of homebuyers tend to value efficiency more than ever before and feel that McMansions are impractical and wasteful”.
Malls have become ghost towns
Maybe you’ve visited a suburban mall recently and wondered where all the people are. Or where all the stores are. Empty shop-fronts aren’t just bad for mall ambience, they signal a shift in where younger people like to shop.And it’s not just the closure of small retailers that mall owners have to worry about. Stores like Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney are referred to in commercial-speak as “anchor stores”. It’s always been believed if a mall has a couple of anchor stores it can’t fail. But all of those aforementioned department stores are currently closing hundreds of locations. Real-estate firm CoStar estimates that “nearly a quarter of malls in the US, or roughly 310 of the nation’s 1,300 shopping malls, are at high risk of losing an anchor store”.
Millennials have discovered their kitchens
While boomers loved eating out and remained intensely loyal to their favorite casual dining chains, millennials want to prepare healthier food at home.
As a result, the casual dining industry is in freefall. In 2017, Ruby Tuesday sold 95 restaurants. Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Grill are in big trouble. Buffalo Wild Wings is seeing sales plummet. And if shopping malls keep failing we can say goodbye to food-court mainstays like Sbarro, Cinnabon, Jamba Juice, and Panda Express.
All the while, most of my favorite podcasts are being sponsored by businesses like Blue Apron. Maybe you’ve heard your favorite podcasters reading their commercials about how they’ll design your menu and send you “perfectly portioned ingredients and step-by-step recipes” so you can “cook healthy food, sustainably sourced and at a better price”.
Blue Apron might be the best-known meal delivery service, but right behind them is recent start-ups like Plated, Hello Fresh and a bunch of others, who know that millennials don’t want to eat regularly at Cheesecake Factory or Red Lobster. And so the suburban restaurant chains keep closing.
Country Clubs are closing down
No one’s taking up golf anymore. That standard pastime of suburban life is under real stress, with over 800 golf courses shutting down across the country in the past decade. People between the ages of 18 and 30 just aren’t interested, which means suburban residential golf estates are in trouble too. Selling houses based on the availability of a practice putting green or lessons with the resident golf pro are less and less successful.
Corporations want a city address
“In the past several years, a handful of America’s largest corporations have joined a mass exodus from their suburban headquarters to new home bases in the city, and millennials seem to be the driving force,” wrote Business Insider’s Chris Weller.
He lists McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, General Electric, and ConAgra Foods as all leaving suburbia in order to headquarter downtown. Swiss bank UBS recently established a New York City headquarters, abandoning Stamford, Connecticut, after 15 years. The reason according to Chris Weller? “UBS realized much of its top talent lived or wanted to live 35 miles south, in Manhattan.”
Oil invented suburbia and oil is killing it
Suburbia was only ever able to exist because oil was cheaper than drinking water. The motor car and the highway allowed workers to live longer distances from their employment, and developers created the housing estate to accommodate them. Millennials don’t just want to live in Manhattan because it’s cool (well, that’s one reason). They want to live near where they work because oil is becoming prohibitively expensive. People will find ways to live nearer to work not only for lifestyle reasons but out of sheer necessity.
The suburban church should be worried
The problem is that baby boomers have so connected church culture to the culture of American suburbia that as suburbia dies, churches are dying with it.
Along with the local shopping mall, Outback Steakhouse and the golf club, we are now routinely talking about the demise of the suburban church. Ed Stetzer reports that 80–85 percent of American churches are on the downside of their life cycle, thirty-five hundred to four thousand churches close each year, and the number of unchurched has almost doubled from 1990 to 2004.
The church growth model that undergirds so much church life in the West today is predicated on the contours of suburban living. The stellar examples of that model were forged in suburban communities like Willow Creek and Saddleback, neighborhoods accessible by freeways, and full of highly mobile people who love golfing and eating out in the faux town squares of the local shopping mall.
But the ground is shifting beneath the suburban church. The children and grandchildren of the boomers, who grew up in planned suburbs, hanging out at malls, want to live in places that are real. They want community-oriented neighborhoods. They want to live in diverse, connected, creative, energizing places. They want to shop in local stores, owned and managed by locals, selling locally (or close to locally) produced goods. They want environmentally friendly neighborhoods that connect them to the geography around them.
The church it will need to disengage from suburban culture and rediscover many of the biblical values millennials are craving. What could that look like? More on that next blog.
Main photo credit: Kevin Lu