Commuters line a subway platform as a train approaches.
Commuters wait for the subway during their morning commute in New York. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Older Americans prefer smaller and more rural places, but Millennials are happiest in cities, according to a new study.

Millennials, the conventional wisdom goes, are the back-to-the city generation. But recently, some observers have argued that Millennials are suburbanizing like their parents did—either by choice or out of necessity.

However, according to a new study, Millennials are happiest in cities. That’s a key finding of a recent paper published in the journal Regional Studies. Authors Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, of Rutgers University, and Rubia Valente, of Baruch College, take a close look at the happiness of recent generations and at the kinds of places where they live or lived. They use detailed data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has collected information for nearly a century on the happiness, or subjective well-being (“SWB”), of five separate generations: the Lost Generation (born between 1883 and 1924); the Silent Generation (1925–1942); Baby Boomers (1943–1960); Generation X (1961–1981); and Millennials (1992–2004).

The study charts the happiness of these generations since the 1970s across an “urban-rural happiness gradient,” which distinguishes between cities of more than 250,000 people and places with fewer than 250,000. It gauges happiness on a three-point scale, based on whether people report that they are “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” or ”very happy” on a day-to-day basis. The researchers fashion regression models that identify the levels of happiness associated with types of places across generations, while controlling for factors like income, education, race, marital status, health, and others.

When it comes to place, Millennials are different from the generations that came before them. Unlike older Americans, they tend to be happier in larger, more urban environments. As the charts below show, for most of the period since 1970, people have been much happier in smaller, less urban places. But that started to change recently—around the year 2010—as the back-to-the-city movement accelerated. Millennials are the only generation that is happier in places with a population of more than 250,000.

Next, the researchers compared Millennials’ happiness to that of other generations in places of various sizes, ranging from 2,000 people to more than 618,000. They found that the happiness of other, older generations skews toward smaller places. Generally speaking, happiness declines as places grow in size.

But the opposite is true of Millennials. They are least happy in places with fewer than 8,000 people; their happiness then rises alongside place size, to a threshold of about 80,000 people, at which point it declines somewhat. Then it edges back up again in the biggest places, those with more than 618,000 people.

But place size isn’t the only thing that matters—the type of place does as well. Using metro-level data, the authors found that “Millennials are least happy in small rural areas, much happier in small urban areas, a little less happy in the suburbs and the most happy in the largest metropolitan areas.” Again, we see this in contrast to the happiness of other generations, which falls as places become larger and more urban. This generational effect is statistically significant, according to the study, and more pronounced than that of either gender or race.

The paper also takes into account an important caveat. It may be that Millennials are happier in cities simply because they are younger—the oldest Millennial in their sample was 34—and younger people enjoy cities and what they have to offer more than older people do. As the authors put it, “Millennials could appear happier in cities simply because they are young and not because they are Millennials.” To get at this, they ran additional regressions, which included only people under 35 across the generations—and the results were similar.

There are number of reasons why Millennials may be happier in more urban places. Previous generations were products of the traditional American Dream, and saw a home in the suburbs or a smaller, pastoral place as a sign of success and happiness. Today, of course, cities are safer, offer more and better economic opportunities, afford more chances to make friends or find partners and mates, provide a wide range of amenities, and are more associated with status and “making it.” Millennials also place a higher value on diversity, and cities offer more diversity than other kinds of places.

“The results indicate that Millennials are different from all other generations living in the United States over the past 40 years—they are the first generation to be more satisfied with urban than with rural life,” Okulicz-Kozaryn and Valente write.

Millennials may be headed to the suburbs these days because they are being priced out of expensive city centers, but the reality is that they are considerably happier in more urban places than older generations are and were. They remain an urban generation.

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