February 3, 2020

The Coupland Primer 3 – Changing Demographics

We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer. Here’s the second.  And now the third:



Demographic change is also driving development, and explains why there are as many new homes as new residents in Vancouver in the most recent data from the 2016 Census.

In the 284,000 households in the City of Vancouver, the average household size has been falling. That’s not a new phenomenon, and it’s not only happening in Vancouver. The average household size is falling across the region, and has for 20 years.  In part it’s because my generation, known as ‘The Boomers*,’ are starting to die off. Average family size** is falling too, both in the city, and the region. It’s not because there are proportionally more one-person households; those have been surprisingly stable over the same period.

There were fewer Boomers in Metro Vancouver in 2016 than in 2011 – but only slightly fewer. The 2011 Census saw the greatest number of people born between 1946 and 1965 living in the region – almost 670,000 people. But there were 18,000 fewer in 2016, as they started retiring to other locations or dying off.

Things were different in the City of Vancouver. Boomers saw their numbers in the city drop for every census period since 1996, when the city saw ‘Peak Boomer’. There were 182,000 born in the 20 years after the war living in the city in 1996, and only 159,000 in 2016. Overall, both in the city and the wider region they’ve declined from over a third of the total population to around a quarter.

[Click headline above for charts.]

In the meantime, the generations following them (‘Generation X’ and the Millennials) are having families of their own – but the families are not as big. The ‘one and done’ phenomenon is real – both in Vancouver and in the rest of the region. There are more families with one child in the city of Vancouver in the 2016 census (46,000 families) than there were in the previous nine census records, back to 1971 (when there were 21,500 families with one child). There were slightly more families with two children as well, but the numbers in 2006, 2011 and 2016 were almost the same at 33,000 families. The numbers with three or more children has fallen steadily over the decades, from 17,300 in 1971 to only 9,500 in 2016. Even Generation Z who follow the Millennials are old enough to be starting families – the oldest were born in 1995 and turn 25 this year.

Generation X have a shorter timeframe, so there aren’t as many as Boomers for that reason, as well as being born in the era of more widely available reliable birth control. Born in the 15 years from 1966 to 1980, their numbers have steadily increased in Metro Vancouver over the years. There were under 400,000 of them in the region in 1996, and over 520,000 twenty years later. With a growing population, they’ve represented a remarkably steady 22% of the total population over that 20 years.

Once again, the City of Vancouver sees a different pattern. Peak Generation X was in 2006, when there were nearly 155,000 born in that 15 year window living in the city. By 2016 that had fallen to 141,000, (which is still more than were in the city in 1996). It’s not unreasonable to suggest that housing affordability probably plays a role in this.  House prices for family-sized homes have surged in the city, and while also rising in the suburban municipalities, they’re often much more affordable. That’s also where the ground-oriented family housing is still rolling out over the undeveloped areas of Metro Vancouver.

Millennials also occupy a 15-year window, born between 1980 and 1995. Many are part of the ‘Echo’ (the children of Boomers). In 2016 they were aged from 21 to 36. News stories will tell you they’re leaving the city. (An internet search shows that they’re also leaving the church, and New Jersey, probably for different reasons). The stories are mostly based on anecdote – “I know a family who have left because they can’t afford the rent / house prices” and those families undoubtedly exist. The numbers however show a very different story overall. In 2016, the City of Vancouver and the rest of Metro Vancouver was at peak Millennial. A look around the coffee shops, bike stores and craft breweries confirms that they’ve moved in. There were 169,000 aged 20 to 34 in the city – more than double the 71,000 who were aged 0 to 14 twenty years earlier. Despite only occupying a 15-year time frame, compared to the Boomers 20 years, there were 10,000 more of them in the city.

That’s not quite as true in the rest of the region. In 2016 there were more Gen X and a lot more Boomers outside the City of Vancouver than there were Millennials. In the recent past the pattern of household formation and families having children has seen an exodus to the suburbs by the Gen X cohort. Maybe with the Millennials it won’t happen as much though. The City of Vancouver is requiring developers to construct more two and three bed units, in both market and affordable projects. Many Millennials seem reluctant to head for the car-reliant locations, and maybe more will stay in the city of Vancouver and make the best of family life.

If the patterns playing out over the past few decades continue, there will be even fewer larger families, but not fewer overall. If there are more smaller families (mostly with one or maybe two children), developing neighbourhoods (like Southeast False Creek, the River District and Oakridge) will still need more child-care and even potentially new schools, just as Downtown has in the past decade. That’s very different from the late 1970s when the census recorded a drop in population for the City of Vancouver, but not for the region as a whole. At the time, the City Council were beside themselves. The city planners questioned the accuracy of the Census. But exactly the same story was seen in Seattle and Portland and San Francisco: the central city population declined, and the suburban population grew. In Vancouver’s case the situation soon turned around, even as the launch of SkyTrain finally gave easy access to Downtown from some of the suburbs.


*There’s no agreed date cut-offs for the different generations, but most analysis, including by Statistics Canada, says Boomers were born between 1946 and 1965. Their children (eventually) leave but the parents often hang onto the empty bedroom ‘just in case’.  As they age even more, couples become singles, but the remaining partner may not want to leave their home.


** Defined as couples or parents living with children at home.

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