Millennial paradise? Bebeto Matthews/AP

Millennials are more distributed across cities, suburbs, and exurbs than is commonly thought, but the clustering of college graduates does reinforce the country’s spatial inequality.

Cities are falling all over themselves to woo Millennial talent, seeing it as key to bolstering their high-tech ecosystems, generating innovation, and spurring economic growth. The recipe for attracting that talent, which I laid out a decade and a half ago in The Rise of the Creative Class (following Jane Jacobs decades earlier), includes fostering the arts and creativity, investing in transit and bike lanes, opening up to diversity, creating denser, more walkable neighborhoods, and building quality of place.

New research by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey takes a close look at the geography of older Millennials, those aged 25 to 34, with a college degree or more. His study paints an intriguing picture of a generation that is more diverse and more widely distributed geographically than the stereotypes would have us believe.

Millennials are the most educated generation in history, but unevenly so. In 2015, 36 percent of Americans aged 25 to 34 were college graduates, up from 24 percent in 1980. There remains an education gap between men and women, and it is widening: 33 percent of Millennial men are college graduates, compared to 39 percent of Millennial women. The racial divide in highly educated Millennials is even more troubling. Seventeen percent of Hispanic and 23 percent of African-American Millennials have college degrees, compared to 43 percent and 62 percent, respectively, of their white and Asian peers.

Contrary to popular perception, Millennials are fairly evenly distributed among urban areas, mature suburbs, and exurbs. However, the cohort in cities tends to be far more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. Nearly three-quarters (72.3 percent) of Millennials in exurbs are white, and more than half (51.9 percent) of those in mature suburbs are too. But urban Millennials are majority-minority: Nearly 60 percent of them are non-white. As Frey puts it: “Suburban categories get less diverse as distance from the core increases.”

But which places are attracting the most Millennial talent—the recent college grads so frequently stereotyped and mischaracterized in popular media? Is this group really so different from previous generations of smart, young people who migrated to cities?

The map from the study below shows the big picture. In 60 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas, the share of college grads within the total Millennial population ranges between 30 and 45 percent. However, some metros have much higher shares. The gap between the leading and lagging metros on Millennial talent reflects the extreme spatial inequality and polarization that define, and increasingly plague, the United States today.

(Brookings Institution)

The top 10 metros for Millennial talent—defined as individuals aged 25 to 34 with a college degree or more—are leading knowledge hubs, plus a sprinkling of college towns. Boston and Madison top the list with a whopping 58 percent of their Millennials holding college degrees. Next in line come San Jose and San Francisco, and then Washington, D.C.

The bottom 10 are mainly smaller, service-dominated or agriculturally oriented metros in the Sunbelt (Las Vegas being the largest and most notable), where the share of highly educated Millennials is half that of the leading metros. Four of these areas are in California, often a short drive from some of the most highly educated and prosperous areas in the world. The economic and cultural divides in that state appear on track to get worse, with so few educated young people in the inland areas and so many on the coast.

But there are some surprises in Frey’s data. Minneapolis–St. Paul and Denver have larger shares of Millennial talent than Seattle and Austin. Educated Millennials make up 40 percent or more of the Millennial population in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Nashville, Columbus, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. Conversely, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Boise, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs all fall below the 30 percent threshold. Miami and Houston have smaller shares of educated Millennials than Detroit and Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I wanted to see if the trends in these metros pointed to any broader changes in the geography of talent. Was the good showing of metros like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Milwaukee indicative of a broader “rise of the rest” in the competition for talented young people?

My colleague Charlotta Mellander ran a basic correlation analysis, comparing Frey’s data on highly educated Millennials in the 100 largest metros to other key indicators of talent, technology, diversity, and density. As always, I stress that these correlations do not indicate causation, but rather point to associations between variables. In fact, the correlates suggest little has changed in the geography of talent in America.

Category Correlate
College-educated population .88
Knowledge, professional, and creative occupations .79
Working-class population -.39
High-tech industry .65
Per-capita income .78
GDP per capita .76
Take transit to work .52
Walk to work .46
Population size .38
Population density .31
Drive to work alone -.35
Arts and media occupations .65
LGBTQ population .29
Asian population .23
Hispanic/Latino population -.37
White population .01
Black population .05
Clinton voters 2016 .43
Trump voters 2016 -.46
Wage inequality .38
Economic segregation .30
Median housing costs .43

For one thing, Millennial talent is closely correlated with more general measures of talent. The share of college-educated Millennials is very closely associated with the share of college-educated adults overall and with the share of the workforce employed in knowledge, professional, and creative occupations. Conversely, educated Millennials are less likely to live in working-class areas. Millennial talent is also highly clustered in leading high-tech ecosystems and in more productive, more affluent metros.

Educated Millennials cluster in amenity-rich places. The share of college-degreed Millennials is positively associated with the share of commuters who take transit or walk to work, although the correlations with population size and density are lower than might be expected. Educated Millennials are much less attracted to places where the car predominates, and are negatively associated with the share of commuters who drive alone to work. They also appear to be very attracted to metros with more vibrant arts and culture scenes, being even more highly correlated with the share of the workforce employed in music, arts, writing, design, media, and entertainment occupations.

Although educated Millennials are drawn to places with higher concentrations of LGBTQ people, the question of race is more complicated. Across metros, there is no significant statistical association of educated Millennials with the percentage of the population that is white or black. But the share of college-grad Millennials is positively associated with the share of population that is Asian, and negatively associated with the share that is Hispanic or Latino.

The geography of Millennial talent also tracks America’s red-blue political divide. The proportion of educated Millennials is positively associated with political liberalism and negatively associated with conservatism. It is also positively correlated with wage inequality, economic segregation, and high median housing costs.

Despite some surprises, the geography of Millennial talent fits with the nation’s overall geography of talent, technology, and regional advantage. Even among the younger generation, America remains defined by winner-take-all urbanism and spatial division—forces that not only shape the nation’s centers of innovation and economic advantage, but its deepening political and cultural divides as well.

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