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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Is There a Relationship Between Regional Unemployment Rates and Older Adult Housing Stability?

Though recessions are known to impact the health of older adults and the housing stability of younger adults, the relationship between the macro-economy and older adult housing is not well understood. In “Household Composition Under Strain: Regional Unemployment Rates and the Older American Housing Decision,” which was recently published in The Journal of Aging & Social Policy, I used data from American Community Survey to demonstrate that, under the strain of higher regional unemployment, older adult housing arrangements show signs of increased insecurity.

Though the connection between retirees and employment rates may not be immediately clear, there are a few ways unemployment rates might affect older adult housing stability. First, family and friends living nearby become more likely to lose their jobs, and this leverages new pressures. Family and friends may need to travel farther for work, work longer hours, or need more household members to earn income to make ends meet. In turn, these pressures could limit their availability to provide informal support to older adults through trips to the pharmacy or grocery store, through food preparation, or through assistance with other personal care, housekeeping, or home maintenance tasks. Second, income pressures might reduce the ability of family members to financially assist older adults who live on a limited budget. Finally, high regional rates of unemployment can burden public and community systems as more families turn to nonprofits and government resources for support. This might overextend senior centers, adult day services, nutrition supports, and other key resources that many older adults rely on.

My research found a correlation between regional unemployment rates and older adult household composition. There were distinct trends for older adults who lived alone, those who lived in multigenerational households, and older adults who lived with a spouse or partner. The share of each household composition type changed in a different way with rising unemployment, suggesting that older adult housing arrangements which were less secure might have become more tenuous under the strain of a regional employment contraction.

For instance, with increased unemployment, there were fewer older adult single-person households. Older adults living alone were less wealthy; about one third of these residents lived with an income under $15,000 each year. These economic constraints raise concerns that older adults who live alone may experience cost-related housing insecurity that makes it more difficult to cope with change. Additionally, thirty percent of older adults living alone were renters, more than twice the share of older adults in other household composition types, which introduces potentially complex landlord-tenant dynamics. Without a housemate to fall back on, with less economic power, and without the autonomous decision-making power of homeownership, older adults living alone may have less capacity to meet emerging needs caused by changes in their health, functional ability, or supports. The reduction of single-person households with increased regional unemployment suggests intensified precarity for older adults living alone whose housing arrangements may already have been less secure.

A different trend held for older residents of multigenerational households. First, they were wealthier than the older residents of other household composition types, likely due to the presence of younger income-earners in the household. Older adults living in multigenerational households were also more likely to be Black, Hispanic, or Asian. Additionally, four out of 10 older adults living in a multigenerational household had a difficulty (something reflecting a need for support, including self-care, independent living, ambulation, cognition, hearing, or sight) compared with just 25 percent of all older adults. With rising regional unemployment rates, older adults with a difficulty were increasingly likely to live in a multigenerational household as compared to those without a difficulty. This suggests that multigenerational households may provide support, both personal and/or financial, to older adults who experienced instability with higher regional unemployment rates.

With an average age of 73, older adults who were married or living with a partner were the youngest of the three types of households and they were also the healthiest. Less than a quarter of these residents reported a difficulty as compared with 37 percent of those living alone. Residents who were married or living with a partner were also less likely to have a low income and more likely to own their home. As regional unemployment rates increased, older adults with a difficulty were less likely to live with a partner, while older adults without a difficulty were more likely to live in a partnered household. The divergence of impacts by health status suggests that it may become harder for partners coping with health decline to continue to live together when their home is located in an area with lower rates of employment.

While this data predates the outbreak of COVID-19, it contextualizes challenges that later emerged during the pandemic, when older adults, who were highly susceptible to the disease, had to cope with sudden and profound changes to their support networks and resource systems. Indeed, the pandemic economy, characterized by high regional need for support and overextended public service systems, could threaten the housing stability of a huge swath of older Americans, particularly as pandemic benefits are retracted. My research suggests that the resilience of community-dwelling older adults depends, to some degree, on the stability of the regional resources and the local balance between need for support and capacity of support providers. As the pandemic emergency safety net is rolled back, we need to be particularly attentive to older adult welfare. If the capacity of regional service systems does not meet regional need, older adult housing instability may increase.