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.