The Millennials Are Marching…But is Anyone Else?

Last month I wrote about how well-educated members of the millennial generation are moving in large numbers to the central cities, and how places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are seeing dramatic increases in the number of college-educated 25 to 34 year olds.

There is no question that this is changing cities in some ways, but to me, the real question—which is where I ended last month—is whether it is just about downtown lofts, tapas bars and fitness centers, or are we seeing a fundamental change in the trajectory of American cities?

So far, with a few exceptions or outliers, not many people other than the millennials are marching to the cities. Urban in-migration drops dramatically as people get into their 30s, and keeps dropping with age. While the aging of the baby boomers is still unfolding, I have yet to hear a compelling argument why their housing choices as they grow older should be all that different from those of prior generations; a 2010 AARP survey found that nearly 3 out of 4 respondents aged 50 to 64 strongly agreed with the statement “what I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence as long as possible.”

Instead, as I read much of what is being written about demographic change and urban revival, I see a lot of urbanist wishful thinking, along the same lines as the scenarios some pundits paint of exurban McMansions turning into slums and squatter colonies, as their former residents flee the suburbs for the cities like the residents of Pompeii fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius. Is it possible? Yes, but the evidence is not there.
The other question is whether millennials will stay in the cities as they move into marriage and child-rearing—as most will—and the appeal of all those bars and restaurants down the block begins to pall. If, as preference surveys show, most will ultimately look for a single-family house in which to raise their children, will they opt for a Philadelphia row house or a St. Louis Victorian, or will they move to the suburbs?

It will be a while before we have a clear picture, but there is little evidence to point to a long-term millennial commitment to cities as a place to remain, settle down and raise families. Joel Kotkin not unreasonably chastises writers who, with little or no evidence to back them up, confidently assume that they will do so. While the jury is still out, there is no compelling evidence of anything resembling the fundamental shift in values and attitudes on the part of millennials that would lead to most of them behaving that differently from earlier generations, and—to the extent that their means permit—buying suburban houses in which to raise their children, and, as often as not, commuting to work in the city in their Priuses.

Either way, though, what impact is this likely to have on the rest of the city? It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, but if we think of cities not just as downtowns and a few nearby millennial playgrounds, but as the entire area within the city’s boundaries, the answer is often less than meets the eye. In most cases, most parts of most cities are not affected much by the changes taking place. Downtowns may be blooming, but little of that change is trickling down to the rest of the city; as Aaron Renn, one of my favorite bloggers, writes, “the creative class doesn’t have much in the way of coattails.”

There may be a handful of exceptions. In a few cities, like Washington, San Francisco, and perhaps Boston, the strength of the regional economy and the growing demand for urban living—not necessarily limited to the millennial generation – may be reaching levels where neighborhoods some distance from downtown or the major universities are being gentrified, and lower income families are finding it harder and harder to stay in the city. In most American cities, like Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, this is not happening. Instead, the thriving pockets and the rest of these cities almost seem to exist in parallel universes, one thriving and growing, the other still shrinking and declining, and the gap between the two steadily widening. Is this these cities’ future, or is today’s march of the millennials a harbinger of more far-reaching change?

While growth in college-educated twentysomethings can change a few areas, it will take far more to change entire cities. Under either scenario, though—the San Francisco one or the Baltimore one—what happens to the people who are not young, single, well-educated and (usually) white and to the neighborhoods where they live? The problem may be one of displacement in Washington or New York, or one of continued neighborhood decline and lack of opportunity in St. Louis or Cincinnati, but either way there’s not much evidence that lower income communities and people of color are sharing in whatever new investment, growth and opportunity is coming into the cities, or will as either scenario continues to unfold.

I enjoy my grande skinny latte as much as the next guy, but this is not an urban future that I find either just or appealing. Yes, cities should be places where aging baby boomers want to live, and where millennials will want to raise their children, but that is not the answer. The real challenge is how to think differently about what a city needs to be, and how we can build the kind of cities that work for everybody.

(Photo by Jasperdo CC BY-NC-ND)

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. Alan, I think it’s a bit more nuanced than you allow. Over a quarter of young people aged 16-34 don’t have driving licenses, a much higher number than previous generations in the same age group. Some 40%, according to RCLCO research, indicate a central-city preference, twice that of previous generations at the same age. I think that suggests that there is something going on. As for boomers like you and me 🙂 many will stay in their current homes until medical conditions prevent it. But some will choose to spend their empty-nest years in a walkable suburban or central-city environment, probably more than their immediate predecessors did.

    The reason these trends are such a big deal is that they comprise the two largest generations in American history. The portion of Americans who prefer large-lot suburbia – including, significantly, those of child-rearing age – will still have some market significance, but they will be a smaller portion of the overall pie than they were over the last several decades. The trend is clearly to smaller lots and the hottest real-estate market, MF properties.

    I don’t think it’s going to be one extreme or the other. It’s going to be in-between, but the trend is going to be toward more urban and walkable suburban properties. The only question is to what extent.

  2. Households are much more diverse today and the old city vs. suburb thinking isn’t enough anymore. Immigration, LGBT social movements, twenty-somethings living with their parents, people who are living longer – all of these things affect where and how we live.

  3. “In most American cities, like Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, this is not happening. Instead, the thriving pockets and the rest of these cities almost seem to exist in parallel universes, one thriving and growing, the other still shrinking and declining, and the gap between the two steadily widening.”

    You summed it all up right there. The thriving areas are gaining population while the declining areas continue to lose population rapidly and that’s largely because people in those neighborhoods are moving to the suburbs or to more stable areas of the city. Anyone who has overlooked the growth of poverty (and especially the working poor) in the suburbs is being willfully ignorant.

    Something else you’re missing is that at these thriving “pockets” become like magnets as they grow, gaining mass and growing faster. In 1999 Center City Philadelphia just didn’t have the mass to attract a museum like the Barnes or hordes of international tourists. Back then no one could even conceive of how much the Center City renaissance would change South Philly or Fishtown and that people from the suburbs would be driving into the City to go to restaurants in those places. It’s one thing to say that Gen Y’ers are the driving force but quite another to say that no one else is doing it or that other groups need to do it in large numbers to make a difference.

    Finally, when young parents move for more space and/or better schools they aren’t moving to the Cherry Hills or Plymouth Meetings they’re moving to Collingswood and Haddonfield, Ambler and Ardmore, and Media and Conshohocken, and even Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

    I don’t think the story is so much that people are completely sold on living downtown but rather that they’ve given up on large-lot suburbia . . . and there are certainly a lot of different neighborhoods between downtown and large-lot suburbia.

  4. one indicator that change is afoot is the number and demographics of school-age children in cities. two cities – Minneapolis and Boston – both are seeing declines in school-age children citywide, but both are seeing increases in children (and demand for kindergarten seats in public schools) in the more affluent neighborhoods.

    I don’t know why you said “perhaps Boston” – the city is almost completely gentrified.

  5. As part of a “Kids in Cities” group organized by CEOs for Cities several years ago, we briefly explored this question and the importance of having middle class families in urban places. Unfortunately, most cities still lack intentional strategies to retain the new residents and talent Alan describes.

    One exception seems to be Centre City Philly, where Paul Levy has reported strong demand for the good K-12 schools there.

    In addition, there is a clear nexus between safety and retention. I call this the safety threshold phenomenon. Young 20-somethings become more concerned about personal safety after 35 and make living choices that provide better perceived safety – particularly if they have young children.

    The bottom line is this. We need intentional policies and strategies to expand the market share for living beyond the young crowd if we want our cities to be livable, healthy, and resilient. Schools and safety are threshold issues to address if we are going to succeed.

  6. Ken Stapleton, you put it correctly, if indirectly: “Most cities still lack intentional strategies to retain the new residents and talent Alan describes.”
    The simplest such strategy would be to abandon the “intentional strategies” that have for decades driven the most educated, affluent, productive and desirable residents OUT of the cities.
    Rampant street violence, tyranny of twisted special interest groups, neighborhood schools torn apart and turned into criminal hatcheries and taxes that can only be described as theft are what have chased, and continue to chase families, especially families with or planning for vulnerable children, out to the relative safety, albeit inconvenience, of the suburbs.
    If urban policymakers want to turn their cities into better places, they must first stop their attacks on the very people they need to make that transformation happen.

  7. Have you considered that antipathy for the suburbs may not be just a millennial fad? As a millennial raising kids in a small city I know well the pressures that push families into the burbs, and I get that— but my high school-aged cousins seem even less inclined to embrace car-dependent living than I did at their age. Most of them don’t even care to get drivers licenses at all!
    Where does that lead us when the millennials are supposed to start abandoning the cities in droves? What if the trend accelerates?

    I hear pundits always talking about this as if Millennials are the only ones pushing urban living. Perhaps it’s only because the next generation hasn’t had the chance yet?


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