Wikimedia Commons/BrokenSphere

New Census data shows that migration patterns among young adults changed after the Great Recession.

It’s not just the media that’s preoccupied with where millennials are choosing to live. Mayors, economic developers and urban leaders across the country have developed strategies to attract the so-called “young and the restless” to their cities. The urban planner Markus Moos goes as far as to suggest our cities are not only experiencing gentrification, but youthification.

A newly released study takes a close look at the recent migration patterns of 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. The study, by researchers Megan J. Benetsky, Charlynn A. Burd and Melanie A. Rapino and released by the U.S. Census Bureau, traces the mobility of these young Americans between 2007 and 2012, breaking the period into two time blocks: the Great Recession, spanning 2007 to 2009, and the subsequent recovery, from 2010 to 2012. It uses data from the American Community Survey’s three-year estimates to examine rates of mobility among young people of both genders and different races, income levels and levels of educational attainment. It also looks at where those young people are actually moving. The study separates out this overall group of young adults into three age brackets: 18- to 24-year-olds, who are more likely to be moving for college; 25- to 29-year-olds, who are more likely to move to establish or move up in their careers; and 30- to 34-year-olds, who are more likely to move for bigger housing required as they start their families.

Recession or recovery, young people remain far and away the people most likely to move. Between 2007 and 2012, young adults accounted for about 24 percent of the total population of the U.S., but they made up over 43 percent of all movers. As the study notes, “Migration in the United States is largely driven by young adults and the children that accompany them." Indeed, mobility peaks around the mid-20s, when roughly 35 percent of Americans are on the move. Compare that to the national average of 15 percent, or the roughly 7 percent of Americans who move around age 55. As the graph below shows, 18- to 24-year-olds alone account for nearly half of all young adults who move, and one in five of all movers across America.

Roughly a half million fewer young people moved between 2010 and 2012 compared to the 2007 to 2009, according to the study, a decline of 1.4 percentage points. In fact, the Great Recession affected young movers more than any other group.

Young men were hit harder than young women. In the years immediately following the recession, the mobility of young males fell by 4.3 percent, compared to a 2.6 percent decline for young women. That disparity was especially pronounced among 25- to 29-year-olds, as the chart to the left shows.

While highly educated young adults remained the most mobile group in the recession and the recovery, their rate of mobility dropped off considerably during the post-recession period, especially for 18- to 24-year-olds, who saw their mobility fall by more than 2 percent between 2007-2009 and 2010-2012. The study suggests that the recession may have caused these young adults to choose colleges and jobs closer to home. Some young people also appear to have been forced to forgo college altogether, making a move unnecessary. The rate of mobility for less educated young adults also fell substantially, as the chart below shows.


So where exactly are young people heading?

The map above, from the study, charts the trend for 2007- 2009, while the one below does so for 2010-2012. Both maps are based on ACS surveys, which asked young people ages 18 to 34 whether their place of residence had changed from one year ago. Using that data, the Census Bureau calculated how many young adults who lived in metro areas with populations larger than 100,000 had moved. The deepest green reflect the metros in which the share of young in-movers was much higher than the national average, while on the other side of the spectrum, the deep purple reflects the metros where the share of young movers was much lower.

The maps are reasonably similar, despite the impact of the Great Recession. There is green—indicating a that young people made up a high proportion of movers—along both coasts and especially across the Boston-Washington corridor on the East Coast and around Greater Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle and Portland in the Pacific Northwest. There is also green around Denver, and college towns like Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin.

The Great Recession hit hard at Sunbelt metros like Las Vegas and Prescott, Arizona, and Miami and Tampa, Florida, all of which saw few young adults moving in.

There are green areas scattered throughout the Industrial Midwest in both periods. This is driven in large measure by the roles of college and university towns. In both periods, movers in the 18- to 24-year-old bracket made up a similar share of migrants into Buffalo and Rochester as they did in more well-known “college towns” like Providence, Rhode Island. This age group made up an even greater percentage of movers to college towns like Blacksburg, Virginia; State College, Pennsylvania; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Bloomington, Indiana.

As I have long argued, these places could benefit from strategies aimed at retaining the young people who already choose to move there for college. One model may be Campus Philly, a non-profit organization that connects Philadelphia students with internships, job opportunities and community programs that ground them in the wider city community.

(It’s worth pointing out that military bases as well as college and universities also have an impact where young people move, as can be seen in the large share of 25- to 29-year-old migrants in metros like Ogden-Clearfield, Utah and Honolulu, which both have major military installations.)

The pattern changes for young people in the two older cohorts, as college towns drop off in significance. Young people in the 25 to 29 age group made up a large share of moves to San Jose (the Silicon Valley), Salt Lake City, and Denver during the recession; after it, New York and Chicago joined San Jose at the top the list. Among 30- to 34-year-olds, the tech and energy hubs of San Francisco and Austin, as well as Birmingham, Alabama, topped the list before the recession, while San Francisco, San Jose, and Louisville did during the recovery.


We've looked at moves to overall metro areas, but what about where young people are choosing to live within those metro areas? While many suspect younger Americans to be more urban-oriented, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman recently crunched Census data to argue that the suburbs remain a more powerful draw.

His findings are challenged by Joe Cortright, the author of several reports on the migration of young people to cities. Cortright argues that Casselman’s tallies reflect only the numbers of young people moving between cities and suburbs. He points out that many young people moving to cities come not from their surrounding suburbs but from other metropolitan areas. When he adds in young people who moved between metros, he finds a net inflow of 85,000 young people between 20 to 29 into principal cities in 2014.

He writes:

[P]rincipal city residents moving to a different metro are about two and a half times as likely to move to a principal city in that new metro as they are to move to a suburb in the new metro—331,000 residents of principal cities in other metros moved to principal cities in a new metro; only 138,000 residents of principal cities in other metros moved to suburbs in a new metro.

Cortright adds that young people today are also much less likely to move to the suburbs than the generation before them. In the mid-1990s, young people 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as they were to move from the suburbs to the city. Now they’re only a quarter more likely to do so.  

As Cortright points out, “where people move in their 20s is important because the probability of migration falls precipitously with age: A 35 year-old is roughly half as likely to move as a 25 year-old, and that probability declines steadily with age,” he writes. “If principal cities are doing a better job of attracting people in their 20s, it has major ramifications for future city population and economic growth.”  

Understanding where young Americans move is much more than an academic exercise. It has a long-lasting impact on both future of cities and the geography of the nation.  

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    What Happened to Crime in Camden?

    Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. photo: Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.

    America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

    Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.

  4. Equity

    The Problem With Research on Racial Bias and Police Shootings

    Despite new research on police brutality, we still have no idea whether violence toward African Americans is fueled by racial prejudice. That has consequences.

  5. A participant holding a Defund Police sign at the protest in Brooklyn.

    The Movement Behind LA's Decision to Cut Its Police Budget

    As national protesters call for defunding police, a movement for anti-racist “people’s budgets” is spreading from LA to Nashville to Grand Rapids.