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Have U.S. Cities Reached 'Peak Millennial'?

The demographic case for preparing now for the next urban population decline, even in growing cities.

ABC Photo/Shutterstock.com

For all the talk of city-loving Millennials, some surveys show that plenty of them actually prefer the suburbs overall, and still plan to move there eventually. Census data released last year suggests that the suburban shift may merely be being delayed, not foregone: while Americans aged 25 to 29 are moving to the suburbs today at a slower rate than they did in the mid-1990s, those aged 30 to 44 are moving there at a faster one.

USC urban planning professor Dowell Myers is among the doubters. At the University of Texas City Forum last month, he ventured that cities have reached “peak Millennial,” or the highest influx and presence of Millennials living in urban areas—and, he argues, it’s only going down from here.

What is “peak Millennial”?

In 2015, those Millennials born in 1990—the largest cohort born in any one year—turned 25. Myers argues this is an important milestone, marking the year that Millennials begin to take their housing and work situations more seriously. Many of them have already made the jump from their parents’ homes or college into a city-center, where they’re living independently and focusing on their careers. “At this age, you’re likely a single adult who’s been out of college for a little while,” Myers says. “And you’re starting to get more serious about establishing your independent adult life.”

This group of Millennials, along with all the ones that came before, Myers says, have been flowing into cities and causing a spike in the urban population. But from now on, there will be fewer young people moving into cities, because there will simply be fewer of them period. If you imagine the inflow of young people to cities as a faucet in a bathtub, Myers says, that faucet has been turned up higher and higher for the last decade or so. But now, it’s finally being slightly turned down by the dip in total youth population numbers. Additionally, as the largest group of Millennials grows older, many of them will begin to make the shift into suburban family life.

The basic consequence? U.S. cities that have been growing could begin to lose people again. This is a cyclical process that’s happened many times before, Myers argues. There are rising and ebbing tides of young people at any given time, and in the past, rising tides have always been associated with the growth of city populations, and lower tides with city population loss.

All this could create problems for cities that view the most recent shift toward urban living as a given. Housing could sit vacant and all the air could come out of the businesses that were built to cater to the young people living there. Many cities could suddenly find themselves scrambling to try to make up for population loss or attract people back into urban cores.

Before that happens, though, cities could start to prepare. It’s difficult to fight the tide of demographic shifts, but if cities can anticipate the potential loss of older Millennials, they might be able to curb the worst effects. When asked what steps cities could take to keep a greater number of Millennials in the city as they grow older, Myers offered up the following ideas.

1. Accept that the urban boom isn’t necessarily forever

“The number one rule is don’t get complacent,” Myers says. In his view, complacency abounds in cities surrounded by cultural chatter about a generation of young people permanently enamored with city life. After all, Millennials love cities!

But with a view of history and demographics, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where that love fades with the years, and a different sort of life starts to seem appealing. Millennials have shown a tendency to delay marriage and children, and thus occupy their studio apartments in urban cores for longer. But that’s no reason not to be concerned that school quality and more space might factor into their choices as they age.

“The future is really hard to tell,” says Myers. “But one thing we do know is that in 10 years time, people will be 10 years older.”

2. Make cities more family friendly

People move when their lives—and therefore their needs—change. What’s a bigger life-changer than marriage and kids? Suddenly you’re worried about the school district in your area and the potential difficulty of carting several tiny humans around with you on mass transit.

None of this is exactly news. And some people will invariably leave no matter what, because the facts of city life don’t square with the way they want to raise their families. There is no catch-all solution to this highly complicated problem, but understanding the need to tackle it is the first part of overcoming the hurdle.

“Cities should be getting out ahead of this and thinking about what they can do,” says Myers. “They need to invest in building more parks and increasing the availability of affordable childcare.”

Also important: Surveying the working mothers and fathers already living in the city to find out what they need and want. It may be that mass transit schedules and routes need to be altered to cater to families with small children, where a caregiver might be making two or three trips in a day. Or maybe crime and pedestrian safety are of greater concern to parents in a given neighborhood.

School quality is another obvious way to attract parents and families. The city of Baltimore, which has suffered population loss for decades, has started its own initiative to this end. City websites are more clearly and prominently displaying information about school locations, test scores, and charter lotteries. The city also invites parents of children on charter school waiting lists to discuss other options if their children don’t get into the school of their choice.

3. Build more, and more varied, housing

Another fairly obvious problem for families trying to stay in expensive city centers: they are expensive. And when there is a dearth of available housing units large enough to house families, the problem only gets worse.

We’re starting to see more and more evidence that when there is a housing shortage, building any new housing (even when it’s not affordable housing) can help renters in the long run, and actually reduce displacement. The same holds true for three- or four-bedroom units: If there aren’t enough of them to go around at a reasonable price, naturally families are going to start looking elsewhere.

“There’s a really understandable knee-jerk response to change: people want to freeze things the way they are. But that strangles a city,” Myers says. “Cities have to support new construction.”

4. Keep doing what works

There’s a reason young people flock to cities generation after generation, and there’s a reason that many people couldn’t imagine themselves living anywhere else: cities are pretty great. There’s the vibrant nightlife and the array of restaurants and bars. There are the museums and cultural events. You can often walk, bike, or take public transit to where you need to go. There’s more to do, more to see and more to love.

All that stuff, Myers says, should keep happening or happen more. Expanding urban attractions is one way to ensure that people continue to be want to live in the city even when suburban convenience or cost-of-living seem appealing.

Ultimately, these headings are a little reductive and obvious; everybody knows that cities have to fix housing shortages and cost-of-living problems, and that it would ultimately be to their benefit to attract and retain families. And there are a lot of really smart people thinking about and working on these problems. This is also by no means an exhaustive list—but it’s a call for a more urgent conversation about the population changes many cities may soon face, and to begin approaching solutions before the floodgates open.

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