When Mark Lampert was a kid, his mom stayed home with him and his brothers. His dad was out the door by 4:30 every morning, driving to the commuter lot in their distant Houston suburb to take the bus in to the city for work. He had friends whose parents both worked, and when those friends came home from school they had the house to themselves – “which is why we went over there to build pipe bombs,” Mark said. At Mark’s house, dinner was ready and everyone was home by 6:00 every night.
Young people don't want to work in corporate campuses like this. And with more and more two-income households, it's just not practical. Photo: Indiana County
These days, Mark is living very differently. He lives in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, April. She works long days as a journalist, biking or riding the metro a short 10 to 15 minutes to her downtown office. His dream job as a video game sound designer has him commuting far beyond the reaches of the metro red line, over an hour each way. They often don’t manage to sit down to dinner until 9:00.
He normally takes the train, but things get complicated during his months-long crunch times at work, when he’s up against a video game release deadline. The Ride-On bus he takes from the metro doesn’t run late, so he has to drive during those times — and lengthen an already painfully long day, circling around endlessly when he gets home to find a parking spot. It gets even hairier when they think about having a family, which they’d like to do soon. It’s hard to imagine a child care situation where they could equitably split drop-offs and pick-ups.
April and Mark used to live out in the suburbs, closer to his work, but they ached to get back into the city. “We knew it would be a lot harder for him time-wise,” April said, “but there’s so much vibrancy about living in the city.”
Their situation is shaped by three coinciding trends: the rise of the dual-income household, the increased desire for urban living, and the spread of job sprawl.
In the 1950s, 57 percent of residents and 70 percent of jobs were located in central cities; in 1990, they were about 37 and 45.
When Mark’s parents were graduating from high school, 35 percent of married women worked outside the home. By the time Mark graduated from high school in the late 1990s, it was 61 percent, which is about where it is now. That means that rather than locating a household to be convenient to one person’s job, families are now struggling to find the sweet spot where two people will have a reasonable commute to two different workplaces.
Sometimes they choose to live between the two. Anecdotally, I see more people making the choice April and Mark made: living where one can have an easy, car-free commute, and the other has a much longer haul. The lack of parking in their inner-city neighborhood is no problem for her, but it causes him no end of headaches.
Couples like April and Mark have a harder time finding that sweet spot because of job sprawl, or the decentralization of employment outside of central cities.