As the capital region’s population ages, public policies need to adjust

Union Station
Editor's note:

We hosted a webinar on May 28, 2020 to discuss the State of the Capital Region 2020 report. Watch here.

Age may be just a number, but it’s an important one. People in different age groups and life stages have different physical, economic, and social needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted another key difference: Public health officials warn that older adults face particularly high risks from the disease. The crisis highlights decades-long trends in the U.S. population: The share of older adults is increasing, while the share of children under age 18 is declining. Our new report, the State of the Capital Region 2020, shows the Washington, D.C. region has largely mirrored national trends over the past 40 years in age and household composition—trends that will require changes in the types of services that both local governments and businesses provide.

In this article, we describe how the age distribution has changed over time, looking both at the entire capital region and focusing on patterns across groups of jurisdictions. The metropolitan area includes the District of Columbia (the District), as well as counties in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Our analysis explores differences between urban, suburban, and exurban locations. Decisions about public services and infrastructure depend not just on how many people of different age groups live in the region, but where certain age groups are concentrated (for instance, shifting locations of households with children).

Children get older, and we’re getting older too…

Like the U.S. population overall, the capital region’s population is getting older. Since 1970, the region has seen sharp declines in the share of children under 18 and young adults (ages 18 to 29). The share of the population over age 59 has increased from around 10% to nearly 20%. Changes in age distribution reflect several different channels: people moving into and out of the region, birth and death rates, and aging over time among people who continuously live in the region.


Rockin’ the suburbs

Popular culture often portrays central cities as the home of young hipsters, while the suburbs are full of families with kids. In reality, the age distribution of urban, suburban, and exurban jurisdictions in the capital region has changed over time. In 1970, suburbs had the lowest share of residents over 59, while urban jurisdictions had the largest share of older adults. Since then, suburbs have seen faster growth in their shares of older adults: By 2018, nearly 20% of suburbanites were over age 59, while the growth rate in urban jurisdictions has remained largely flat. At the same time, exurban and urban areas now have a similar share of older adults.


Hold on to 16 as long as you can

Families with children are more common in suburban and exurban parts of the capital region, but they have declined in population share across all types of jurisdictions. As of 1980, nearly half of exurban households and 40% of suburban households had at least one child under 18, compared to under one-quarter of urban households. Since then, families with kids have declined noticeably among exurban and suburban households, while remaining largely flat among urban jurisdictions.


Where children live has important implications for the demand for schools, child care centers, playgrounds, and other amenities. Drilling down to the neighborhood level shows distinct geographic patterns in where families with children live. Suburban and exurban neighborhoods to the west and south of the Capital Beltway have higher concentrations of families with kids. In the District of Columbia, Ward 7 and Ward 8 have by far the largest share of families with children. These are predominantly Black and disproportionately poor neighborhoods, relative to the District overall; the full State of the Capital Region report provides more information on changes to the region’s racial composition and income.


Will you still need me, will you still feed me…

Changes in the age distribution of the capital region’s population have important public policy implications. Some of these are self-evident: As the population ages and the share of children declines, there will be relatively less demand for schools and more need for services for older adults, especially health care. Similarly, changes in where families with children live alter local need for school capacity, playgrounds, and related infrastructure.

Other policy implications are more subtle. Aging also implies changes to the labor market, such as a reduced pool of entry-level job candidates. Retirees don’t commute to work every day, so they spend less of their income on transportation, clothing, and other work-related goods. Differences in spending patterns over people’s life cycles also affect tax revenues, such as those from sales taxes and income taxes.

While families with kids tend to prioritize homes with more space, older adults may seek to reduce time and money spent on home maintenance, or downsize or retrofit their houses to be more accessible. Public spaces may require alterations to be more accessible to older adults—adding benches and curb cuts, for instance. As the region (and the nation) grows older, policymakers and private businesses need to take these factors into account when making long-range planning decisions.