Monday, August 26, 2013

Many Millennials Will Leave Cities, And That's Okay

They're all headed to the suburbs, as soon as they finish this game of Candy Crush.
Cities have been in ascendancy for the last few decades — the past several years in particular — and a major reason for their success has been their appeal to Millennials (those born around 1980-2000) and the "creative class." As a result, cities have acquired a reputation as being the place that young people go after they finish college to live in small, expensive apartments, party all the time, pay too much for coffee, and generally delay adulthood as long as possible. Everyone grows up eventually though, so the influx of Millennials has a lot of people worried — some sincerely, others not so much — that when these kids finally grow up and decide to have children of their own, the whole urban experiment's going to blow up in our faces and cities are going to revert to the bad old days of the crime-ridden, blight-filled '80s.

But we should stop worrying. Some young families are going to leave the city, and not only is it not going to be as bad for cities as people think, it's probably going to be great for America. Cities are already the most productive places on the planet and the primary exporters of intellectual goods; why not embrace the export of urbanism, too?

One reason I'm not too concerned about the exodus of Millennials has already been covered pretty thoroughly, and it's also generational: baby boomers are hitting retirement age, and without any kids at home and with less physical mobility they're seeing the appeal of living in smaller homes, closer to their daily needs. Even as many Millennials leave cities, the largest generation in history is getting older and the challenges of keeping up a 3,000 square foot home and driving everywhere will weigh ever-heavier.

Living the dream!
Another part of the problem here is a ridiculously static view of demographics. In every article and blog post I've read about the imminent decline of cities as Millennials move on, I've never once seen anyone mention the next generation. But this is a pretty important fact: Millenials aren't the last generation in America, and by all accounts the next generation is even more urban-friendly and car-averse than the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today. At this point there's absolutely no reason to believe that the next generation won't be able to replace Millennials that decide to decamp to the suburbs. If anything, the more likely problem will be producing enough housing to keep cities semi-affordable, something we haven't done a great job of as demand has spiked.

Last, sending some newly-minted urbanites back into the suburbs from whence they came could be just what the suburbs need. After all, we tell our young adults to go backpacking through Europe or South America after graduation—"See the world!"—as a means of gaining perspective outside their relatively narrow experience. Why not the same with cities? There's much more to life than a two-car garage and a 30-mile commute, after all. The suburbs have been declining in wealth and appeal over at least the past decade, while cities have boomed; Millennials might be able to take some lessons home from their excursions into the big city, and to help reverse that decline. As readers probably know, this transition is already underway in suburbs, malls, and town centers across the nation.

The point here is that just because some Millennials will decide it's in their interest to find a bigger home with a yard, that doesn't mean they've abandoned the values that attracted them to the city in the first place. And the habit of walking, biking, and using transit to get around can very quickly become an expectation. Millennials may have saved cities, and they might just save the suburbs too.


  1. Shane,

    Good post, with many good points. I've often thought the same thing as you. Why so much emphasis on Millenials? There will be more young people in the future. But the fact is that there is a definite demographic bulge centered around those who were 20 years old in the 2010 census. Granted, this implies cities still have some time to grow, perhaps another 10 years. But after that, if cities can't attract a wider demographic (such as the retirees you mention, or families with older children), they will inevitably lose some population. Also, the fact that 10 years ago there was no corresponding bulge of 10-year-olds implies that immigration may also play a large role.

    Finally, to your point about sending urbanites into the suburbs: Having met many of these decamping urbanites myself, they are often those lease enamored of the whole urban experience, and are all too willing to give up on transit and adopt the 2-car lifestyle. It usually DOES mean they've abandoned the values of the city. Don't count on them to save the suburbs. Outer suburbs with poor walkability and transit are far more likely to die a slow death due to decreasing population and spiraling costs than to be transformed by Millenials into mini-cities.

    1. Tal, good points yourself! I did think about these issues a bit before finishing up, but didn't want to bog things down too much. On the matter of generation sizes, I think there's something to that, but I don't think it's going to be that big a problem. To see why, check out page 4 in this document:

      It shows the generation sizes in absolute numbers over the past 100 years, and we can see that, though boomers definitely represented a much larger percent of the American population, the generation that followed was barely smaller, and the Millennials were about the same size. Perhaps the newest generation will be smaller, but we're still continuing to grow as a nation so I don't expect that it'll be THAT much smaller, if at all. We'd also have to get into the issue of where immigrants are moving and having their children, but I'll leave that to the professionals. (My guess is that they end up in cities more than the average person though.)

      To your point about urbanites heading to the suburbs, I think that's true, though there's probably a lot of variation. I don't think it's going to be a cure-all, but even being a part of the lifestyle for a few years or a decade can make a big difference, in my opinion. Like I said about vacationing abroad, the idea is that you gain some perspective that you wouldn't otherwise have had--it doesn't mean you're packing things up and moving to France for the rest of your life. And even if those who move back to the suburbs end up there because they didn't love urban life, I think the diversity of the city and the value of transit (which you have to recognize as essential in big cities if you've ever lived in one), can at least bias them toward a more inclusive mindset regarding transportation, some land use, and how they vote on it.

      Also, I want to be clear that I'm not advocating for sending people away from cities once they reach a certain point in their lives, and don't want people to think I'm dismissing the need to build more family-friendly cities. We're going to lose a lot more than just the not-so-enamored-with-urban-life Millennials if we build nothing but studios and one-bedroom apartments in our cities. But to have those two- and three-bedroom apartments be affordable for families we need a LOT more housing in our cities, because right now if you build it you're more likely to get three or four twenty-somethings renting it out as roommates than a family in there--demand is still far ahead of supply and roommates are in a more competitive economic situation than many families.

  2. Nice post! As one myself, I think we have the ability to correct the balance that has been lost. Yes, every policy in the last 60-70 years has led us to the 'burbs so far, but I see the opportunity to repair those transects of development in the places other generations vacated.

    Does that mean everyone will live, work, play in an urban city? No. I grew up 40 minutes outside of Chicago and loved the city for what it was, but I also loved being the last burb before cows and cornfields. We'll have to get smarter about how we build and why we build, but that doesn't mean that it all of the sudden becomes an either or proposition of only build urban or only build suburban. I think Gen X has clearly recognized this problem, but Gen Y might be able to be the first ones to do something about it.

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  4. Excellent post! Jobs followed the Boomers to the suburbs. In a somewhat different manner demand for development that accommodates biking and walking will likely follow the Millennials. A key question will be whether local land use and transportation planning and zoning will facilitate this or get in the way.

  5. "In a somewhat different manner demand for development that accommodates biking and walking will likely follow the Millennials"
    -Absolutely! We still have a way to go as far as planners being dynamic and flexible enough. Somehow we need to learn how to sustain for the future while keeping up with the changes our built environment should go through to match our ever-changing values as a people.