Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new simulation may shed light on the living preferences of the largest generation in American history.
Given every silly stereotype about Millennials, it’s easy to forget the qualities that make these napkin-shunning, straw-opposing young adults so formidable. For starters, there are simply more of them. In the U.S., adults under 40 today outnumber any similar cohort, including the almighty Baby Boomers. As a generation, these 83 million people share a defining experience: neither Tide Pods nor BDE, but the Great Recession. By their sheer numbers, their unprecedented diversity, and the collective economic trauma that forged them, the Millennial generation is set to dramatically remake American society.
With all that people get wrong about these people, maybe it should be no surprise that nobody can say for sure where they really want to live. Researchers have arrived at two different conclusions. One is the back-to-the-city thesis, which asserts that young adults prefer the bustle and diversity of the urban landscape to the fading suburban dream. The other argument holds that, secretly, Millennials prefer the suburbs; they just haven’t made it there yet, or they’re being overlooked. It’s the Laurel vs. Yanny debate tearing geography apart.
In the former camp are researchers like City Observatory’s Joe Cortright or CityLab’s own Richard Florida, who say that young adults are fueling growth in near-downtown neighborhoods. But others, like Jed Kolko and Joel Kotkin, are finding the most population growth in the suburbs. Now, a new simulation looks to put this debate to rest.
The back-to-the-city and secret-suburb camps are talking past one another, says Hyojung Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Inconsistent definitions of urban areas help to explain why. For example, researchers looking at core counties in metropolitan areas draw different conclusions from researchers looking at neighborhoods above a certain housing density threshold—because they’re looking at differing things.
“It is such a cliché, but demography is not destiny, of course, and there will be many other factors that influence the residential location choice among people,” writes Lee in Urban Affairs Review.
Some forecasts call for a “peak Millennial” cliff, with young adults giving up urban centers for the ‘burbs starting around 2020. But that scenario may be mistaken, according to Lee’s projection. In his simulation, by the year 2035, the share of young and not-so-young adults living in the city may be at the same high levels seen today, indicating that this trend is an enduring shift rather than a blip driven by the recession. If present trends continue, then the more-diverse, less-married Millennial generation may never need to trade in the Uber Pool for the minivan.
To reconcile the different ways that scientists talk about downtown, Lee outlined a framework for measuring where the population of young adults is growing. Using the city center (a point provided by the U.S. Census Bureau) for the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas, he generated 75 concentric rings in one-mile increments. This “multiple ring buffer analysis” enables Lee to examine the “population contours” from the central business district to outer suburban areas of each metro area.
To see how this works, picture a target, with each ring representing a geographic band of the city, stretching from the central business district (bullseye!) to the distant outer rim. Lee focused on a few geographic bands: the ones closest to the central business district (0–1, 1–2, and 2–3 miles from the center); the broader inner city (3–10 miles out); suburban areas (10–45 miles); and the rest of the country (45 miles out and beyond).
Further, the study considers both demographic and socioeconomic factors. It compares a similar cohort across generations—Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial—to reflect how changes in diversity, marriage rate, and family size may affect projections for where young adults choose to live over the long term.
The study’s conclusion: In the 1990s and 2000s, population growth rates for young adults living in the city center and the suburbs were both higher than the national average. On the other hand, during these decades, the broader city shed population. “[T]he population distribution shifted to the downtown and suburban areas, at the expense of inner city (and peripheral) areas, which is consistent not only with the back-to-the-city thesis but also with its opponents, those arguing for sustained suburban growth,” Lee writes.
So both sides of the debate got it right—kind of.
Things shifted after 2010. Growth rates in the city center slowed way down, while growth in the broader city areas ticked up. Growth in the suburbs, which had surged for two decades, was still positive but much weaker after 2010, especially in the outer-most bands of the suburbs.
What researchers choose to observe as “downtown” determines whether or not they’ll find any growth there. Overall, the study finds evidence for the back-to-the-city thesis. But stronger growth rates don’t indicate where Millennials live in absolute terms. In fact, just 4.9 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 were living within three miles of a central business district in 2015—that’s 2.1 million people.
Nearly 8 million young adults lived in the city beyond downtown, on the other hand, and more than 16 million young adults lived in the suburbs. Notably, the young adults in the city center were much more likely to be white, highly educated, and high-income earners—meaning that downtown Millennials are outliers, demographically speaking. At least, for now.
The Millennial generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, and for some theorists, that fact alone explains young adults’ preference for urban living, since minority groups are historically more likely to live in cities. (And suburbs were built in the 20th century as a federal project to preserve white communities.) The more diverse racial composition of the Millennial generation is a factor driving their living preferences, Lee finds. So is their delayed marital status relative to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.
When projections set marriage rates, educational attainment, and racial diversity at 2015 levels, then it’s easy to find evidence for a “peak Millennial” scenario of adults fleeing cities by 2035. Yet marriage rates are declining, adults are gaining higher levels of education, and the population is growing more diverse. Accounting for a more racially diverse society, for example, changes the forecast to stronger urban growth. “When I take into account the long-term trends in marriage rates and education level,” Lee writes, “the growth of downtown and inner city areas is even more accelerated, mainly at the expense of the most peripheral areas.”
Lee’s projections anticipate steady suburban growth, too. And he’s quick to point to factors that could push young adults outward, like rising costs of urban housing. Changes in technology, finance, or the market could also swing these projections in any number of ways. But in all of Lee’s scenarios, rural places lose out: Nonmetropolitan areas are likely to “face difficult demographic headwinds in coming decades.”
Are Millennials moving back to the city? Yes, that much is clear in Lee’s analysis. Are Millennials moving to the suburbs? Sure, that part is also true. Are Millennials leaving the city for the suburbs? Not any time soon—or not nearly as quickly as prior generations.
This story has been updated.