Back in 2008 John Zogby, founder of the Zogby International Poll, predicted a seismic shift in American’s aspirations, values and ideals in his book The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream.
Zogby identified four mega-trends that are shaping the trajectory of the American culture and fundamentally redefining the American Dream and the homes that have come to embody that dream. They are:
- Living with limits: Leaner, smaller, more personal and personalized
- Embracing diversity: Global, networked and inclusive
- Looking inward: Who I am, not what I own
- Demanding authenticity: Searching for authenticity in a make-believe world
Our polling consistently shows not only that wealth isn’t being shared equally – that’s obvious – but that average Americans have made fundamental adjustments in their expectations, their needs and their values, and that those adjustments are creating whole new paradigms through which people are making consumption and political choices that will shape the nation in the decades to come.
The American culture is at a crossroads, after more than half a century of material-driven consumption that defined the American Dream as getting more and more stuff to fill bigger and bigger houses. Coinciding with the Great Recession, though I believe the seeds of this paradigm shift were forming at least since the turn of the century, Americans started to wake up to the realization that their extravagant buying and spending ways were not making them any happier or personally fulfilled. Quite the opposite. The tide started to turn from a drive focused on quantity of things to quality of life, since the one clearly wasn’t leading to the other.
Fast-forward to today, and Zogby is out with a new book, We Are Many, We Are One: Neo-Tribes and Tribal Analytics in 21st Century America, and a new poll that shows just how far the pendulum has swung in the consciousness of American consumers and the home that is their American Dream.
Zogby polled n=800 American consumers and asked them to imagine two romanticize styles of living:
- A grand mansion with lots of amenities, located in an expensive and prestigious neighborhood
- A well-constructed tiny home, off the grid, surrounded by beautiful and bountiful nature
The overall results didn’t surprise me with the back-to-nature home the winner, but the wide difference in distribution of the responses did. Two-thirds of Americans polled said the tiny house was the home of their dreams, as compared with only about one-fifth that aspired to luxury living.
What’s even more surprising the divergence in preference for back-to-nature, tiny-house living held up across all demographic segments — age, gender, race, education, political party, liberal/conservative/moderate, region, urban dwellers and not, income, employment, creative class, marital status, sexual preference, children in home, religion, church attendance, NRA membership and NASCAR — the very identities that define the hot button issues in today’s culture wars.
The “Tiny-House Movement” is more than a television show
Zogby says, “As long as all things digital become further intertwined with our lives, more will long for a return to basics.” He goes on to explain the cause of the shift:
My polls were showing that about 1/3 of adults worked at jobs that paid less than the previous, but were finding inner peace by attaining less stuff, and through seeking authentic experience. At the same time, there were Americans who had achieved material success and found themselves not fulfilled – just as baby boomers were finding it was time for a second act in their lives. I called this phenomenon ‘secular spiritualism.’
My work with the affluent consumers, i.e. those who have achieved the material success that Zogby speaks of, mirrors Zogby’s American dream home findings. In a Unity Marketing study with high-earning millennials who’ve attained post-graduate education and were pursuing career paths that will lead to very high levels of income (e.g. tech, engineering, healthcare, business, etc.). The young millennial affluents, called HENRYs (high-earners-not-rich-yet), expressed aspirations for a more meaningful, personally richer and rewarding lifestyle, including a more modest sized home, but with a twist.
In an exercise where they created a montage of their American Dream, nearly everyone pictured an average suburban home as their housing ideal, complete with white picket fence and a dog in the yard. But they invariably also included a vacation home, on the beach or in the mountains, where they could escape the stress of their demanding careers to get back-to-nature and find contentment missing from their day-to-day lives.
The implications of Zogby’s most recent poll go much further than the housing market, though clearly it has greatest relevance to home builders, land developers, realtors, designers, landscapers, the many manufacturers and suppliers serving the home market, as well as mortgage lenders.
Design for living a meaningful life
First is a desire for smaller, more practical and functional homes, designed not for show but for how people really live and want to live. Where once the value of a home was measured largely in square footage, the Tiny House movement establishes a new yardstick as people’s quality of life. Smaller homes but equipped with better quality appointments save people time, save money, save energy and provide people a different perspective to evaluate new purchases, e.g. what has to go to make room for this new thing I’m considering buying? It makes for mindful consumption that is more considered and more conscientious. It shifts the focus from having more to doing more.
In choosing an ideal tiny home set in nature, not in some artificial planned community, people are craving a lifestyle that is green, clean and healthful. A new study by Ogilvy Health & Wellness Practice explains the need. “Our modern world is at odds with the way we evolved. The ‘ape within us’ – the primal parts of the brain designed to keep us alive – cannot cope with this new environment.”
The wellness movement with its connection to the back-to-nature trend “is a way for us to manage our modern condition. On one level it is an antidote to toxic stress,” the Ogilvy report declares. The simple fact is nature nurtures and that is what the Zogby poll revels.
People’s need to be in touch with nature has implications for developers and builders and how they situate houses, outdoor living brands that provide the furniture, accessories and accoutrements that an outdoor lifestyle requires, interior and landscape design, garden centers and nurseries. In a recent investigation into bird feeding, a pastime enjoyed by over 52 million Americans, I concluded that when people feed the birds, the birds actually feed them, spiritually and emotionally.
“Tiny House, Big Living” proclaims HGTV and this is the trend that the Zogby’s poll identifies. While people can argue that the square footage of the average new American home has been growing dramatically over the last 40+ years, from 1,660 sq. ft. in 1973 to 2,640 in 2016, the latest data also shows a 1.7% decline in size from 2015 to 2016, according to the American Housing Survey. This may not seem like much, but the other recent declines from 2008 to 2010 were directly attributable to the recession. Such cannot be said for this most recent drop.
We will continue to see a downward trend in the average square footage of new homes, along with growing demand for smaller homes in the resale market. This will be caused by more demand among baby boomers and increasingly among maturing GenXers, the leading edge of which is 53 years of age, for more livable, manageable homes suited to their active, empty-nesting lifestyles, along with reduced demand for family homes on a grand scale among millennials who are giving birth to fewer children, if having children at all. A sea change is coming to the U.S. housing market and businesses that depend upon it need to take heed.