When it comes to the swooning housing market, sometimes it seems only a knight in shining armor can save it, and according to some experts, that salvation could come in the form of the so-called echo boomer generation.
About 62 million strong, echo boomers—Americans roughly between the ages of 17 and 31—will shape the next two decades of the housing market, according to the National Association of Realtors, noting that young homebuyers already make up 31 percent of all recent home purchases.
"Clearly it's a significant demographic group," says Charlie Young, president and CEO of ERA Real Estate. "With about 5 million turning 21 every year, they're going to be driving the first-time homebuyer market for years to come."
[Read: EBay for Real Estate?]
"I believe the market will be fueled by the coming of age of this generation," he adds.
But rescuing the ailing housing market is a tall order for a group that's been faced with mounting student loan debt and dwindling employment opportunities. Younger Americans still face relatively high unemployment rates and many have been forced to move in with family, cutting off what was once a deep well of housing demand.
"People who have high student [loan] debt and people who are in an underemployed situation, they will not have an easy time becoming a homeowner," says Lawrence Yun, chief economist at NAR.
Still, Yun says the tight financial situation many echo boomers face today won't last forever. In the short term, factors such as mortgage rates and the job market will drive the level of activity in the housing market, he says.
[Read: Return of the McMansion?]
"I expect the U.S. economy and the unemployment rate to return back to historical norms within a few years," he says. "And the thing with student debt loads is that as long as people have jobs they can pay that off, so it's really about the job creation."
In the meantime, most echo boomers will rent until their financial situation stabilizes, but that doesn't suggest a long-term, fundamental change in the way Americans view homeownership, experts say. On the contrary, poll after poll reports that most Americans still have homeownership as a financial and life goal.
"Homeownership is a key part of America's social fabric and it will continue to be," Young says. "Not many people grow up to say, 'I want to rent my home.' I don't expect over the long haul there to be any substantial change in buying patterns."
Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter.