Boomers Made Do With Available Space

If you are a fan of real estate TV shows (as Mister Boomer is), then you know that America’s housing tastes and expectations have changed dramatically since the boomer years. In short, bigger is better for Millennials and Gen-Xers.

It remains a constant source of amusement for Mister B to watch young couples walk into a house built in the 1930s or ’40s and complain about the small size of the rooms and lack of closet space. The types of 8 x 10 ft. or 10 x 12 ft. bedrooms they bemoan are exactly the types of rooms Mister Boomer, and many other boomers, grew up in during the boomer years. Mister Boomer is far from alone in having had to share that room with his brother until he was 18 years old. Bunk beds helped create enough space for a walkway between the dressers and desk to do schoolwork. Sharing the bedroom meant sharing the closet as well. At four feet wide and three feet deep, the only way one could walk into that closet was if everything were removed first.

The young couple would wander into the kitchen of their prospective home buy, and — horror of horrors! — it was a separate room. They’d wonder what happened to the counter space and can’t seem to locate the pantry; reality sets in. The fact of the matter is, boomers lived in much less space than the generations that followed. Actually, Baby Boomers are at least partially to blame for today’s expectations since they bought houses that were much larger than the ones in which they grew up. On average, newly-built house square footage increased by 1,000 sq. ft. between 1970 and 1980, and another 1,000 sq. ft. between 1980 and 1990. It took the economic downturns of the early 2000s to shrink the size back just a bit. The bottom line is, there are two generations that followed the boomers that grew up in houses double or more in size than what boomers saw as the norm.

However, there is more than just square footage at work here; lifestyle has played an important role in the need for space. Take three examples from real estate shows as an illustration of the different lifestyles:

Walk-In Pantry
Prior to World War II, people shopped for fresh groceries multiple times a week. The need to keep packaged and canned goods were much less than after the 1960s, when more prepared foods hit the shelves. There was also much less need for storing specialty small appliances. Mister Boomer’s mother, for example, had an electric hand mixer that resided in a bottom cupboard. She never owned a stand mixer. Crock pots, griddles, toaster ovens, blenders, electric can openers, and more, became more popular during the boomer years heading into the 1970s. For most boomers, if their house was not a new construction, there was no space for a walk-in pantry.

Small Bedrooms
If a bed and a dresser fit into the room, what more space was needed? In current days, bedrooms are hangout spaces for a lot of kids. A desk may be needed for setting down a laptop, and a TV appears to be a given in most teenager’s bedrooms (though streaming services are putting a dent in the need for a television in every room).

Walk-In Closet
Simply put, boomers owned much less clothing than people do these days. Less clothes meant less need for closet space. Again, boomers helped usher in the acceptance of seasonal fashion trends and ultimately, fast fashion. Yet in the boomer years, a pair of jeans could last a decade. Mister Boomer attended college with people — men and women — who wore the same pair of jeans to class every day for four years. Mister Boomer grew up learning from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations that clothing fell into three categories: work, play and Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes that were reserved for church, weddings and funerals.

When Mister Boomer first visited his brother’s new house in the 1980s, his jaw dropped at the size of his nephew’s bedroom. His walk-in closet was half the size of the room Mister B and Brother Boomer had spent more than a decade in. Rather than clothes, though, his nephew stored stacks of toys in the closet.

What prompted the need for more space? It’s difficult to say exactly. Mister Boomer thinks part of it has to do with the American Dream of doing better than your parents. Those expectations point up the need for more of everything, and that means more space in which to put all the stuff. It’s hard to imagine these days that boomers were the generation that rallied against conspicuous consumption, yet boomers raised children and grandchildren who could not possibly imagine growing up in the rooms and conditions in which boomers spent their lives.

Better? Worse? It’s all a matter of perspective. Open concept kitchens? It’s no longer the enclosed space where mom would chase you out of “her room.” Walk-in pantries? Available goods with longer shelf life and appliances to cook with coupled with the needs of families for quick evening meals means pantries will continue to be an important feature of every new home. More closets, bigger closets? Until we all realize that less clothing is better for our environment as well as our space, closet space will expand.

How about you, boomers? Did you grow up in compartmentalized houses that were half the size of the homes of your children?