The March of the Millennial Generation to the Cities is Real

    This past fall, the Washington Post ran a series called “The March of the Millennials“ about how this generation is changing Washington, D.C. For those of you who have been out of the loop for the last few years, “millennials” or the “millennial generation’” is what people are calling those who have reached adulthood since the early 2000s; in other words, who were born since the early 1980s. They are (obviously) young, and—particularly among those who are college graduates—disproportionately likely to be single, or if married, childless.

    Many of them are moving to places like Boston or Washington, where, as the Post article put it, “to longtime residents, the city feels different, in some places, almost unrecognizable. Once-dead streets are bustling, even after dark. High-rises are replacing aged structures and overgrown lots. Restaurants pop up overnight, like dandelions. Pedestrians have to look both ways for bicycles.”

    Thinking about this, I found myself asking two questions. First, is this just something that’s happening in the outlier cities, like Washington, Boston or San Francisco? And second, what does it really mean for these cities, and what does it suggest for their future? In this post, I’ll take on the first question, and next month I’ll talk about the second.
    Being a data wonk, I realized that there’s a pretty straightforward way to tell whether your city is being, as the headline in a Next City piece last spring put it, “overrun by millennials.”

    We can look at the number of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2000 and 2012 (for which we use a weird dataset known as the five-year American Community Survey (ACS), about which the less said the better) for a city, look at the same number for the state, and compare:

      • the city’s share of this demographic compared to its total population share; and;
      • what share the city made up of the statewide growth in that demographic between 2000 and 2012.

    The results are staggering. The first table shows the numbers for five cities—one well-known millennial magnet, Boston, and four reviving, but still struggling cities.


    Percent share of statewide total population (2008-2012 ACS)

    percent share of statewide college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2008-2012 ACS)

    percent share of statewide growth in college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2000 to 2008-2012)

















    St. Louis




    Since these cities have very different shares of statewide population, it may be hard to compare them on the table—even though it’s pretty clear Boston is off the charts. To make this more visible, in the graph I’ve ‘equalized’ the population share, so the relationship between it and the other two data points is clear.

    The data make clear that:

      • what’s going on with the millennial generation is not limited to a couple of outliers, and;
      • the change is recent and dramatic.

    Look at the next graph, which compares the relative share of total population and 25-34 year old college graduates for the same five cities (1.00 means that the city has the same statewide share of total population as it has of 25-34 year old college graduates, higher than 1.00 means that its share of 25-34 year old college graduates is higher than its total population share).

    In 2000, St. Louis and Philadelphia had about their proportionate share of millennial college graduates, and Baltimore actually had much less than its proportionate share. By 2012, this had changed dramatically, particularly in St. Louis, which has become a major draw for millennials. So what we’re seeing is a very recent phenomenon—meaning that, at least in this respect, the millennial generation is fundamentally different from previous generations.

    This isn’t happening everywhere, though. Some cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, are not attracting, or holding college-educated millennials. Both have fewer than their share of this demographic, and have lost more than they gained since 2000. The entire state of Michigan lost 25-34 year old college graduates over the decade, and Detroit’s loss accounted for 38 percent of the statewide loss, even though Detroit contains only 7 percent of the state’s population.


    Number of college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2000)

    Number of college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2008-2012)


    Ratio of college graduates aged 25 to 34 to total population (2000)

    Ratio of college graduates aged 25 to 34 to total population (2000)




    – 314









    Cleveland can perhaps take some small consolation in the fact that, although it lost members of this demographic, it lost fewer of them than it lost others.

    In short, the march of the millennial generation to the cities is real, and is significant. The question is, does it mean something more than downtown lofts, tapas bars, and fitness centers? I’ll speculate on that question next month.

    (Photo by Ron Henry CC BY)

    Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the National Housing Institute, is the author of many works on housing and planning, including Bringing Buildings Back, A Decent Home, and Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective. He served as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, New Jersey, from 1990 to 1999, and teaches in the City and Regional Planning program at Pratt Institute.


    1. Fantastic data about the insistent Millennial March to inner city living. This is the urban tsunami of the era. Millennials treat San Francisco like a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, sleeper cities like Saint Louis develop unique communities that have a broad appeal to social and creative-minded Millennials.

      Any global data?

    2. Did you ever stop to think that what is happening in the Hunger Games Capital, whoops, I mean Washington D.C., is perhaps the effect of that tribute of about one extra trillion dollars a year that is now being filtered throught that city every year for the last 5 years running. That trillion of course started out a a one time stimulus in 08 but of course got continue resolutioned into a permanent part of the budget. You need a lot of lobbyist and a lot of office buildings to hold them to ask for such a bigger pie. The millienals, like anyone else, just go where the money is. They exist because their baby boomer parents had sex and make them.

      As for St. Louis, I think it is a different issue. There, they move to the city, which btw is not experiencing a D.C. boom by any stretch of the imagination, because it is a cheap place to live and they have no where else to go aside from their parent’s basements. People that can’t find jobs of course are greatly interested in startups, too, thus that nice trend in St. Louis.

      In short, I think the author here has greatly confused his cause and effects. One move is simply caused by more money and the other is caused by lack of money. Nothing is caused the the mere fact of the birth of millienals. There is nothing special about them. Both movements are caused by the big money sucking sound of created by Washington D.C. sucking up unprecedented trillions of dollars during the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations and the growth of government during that period. In the meantime the well being of the middle class in American stagnates, declines and employs fewer and fewer people. Facts: the percentage of the population employed is lower than it has been in 50 years and the percentage on welfare is breaking records. I hope the miracle millennials enjoy the burden supporting all of us in our old age. They will really need to use that creativity.

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but please.


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