Young women and men chat over beers in a bar.
A group of friends catching up over drinks in Denver in 2016. Brennan Linsley/AP

New research suggests that younger Americans’ preference for urban living is real and not wearing off.

Young people have been a key factor in the back-to-the-city movement—so much so that one study identified “youthification” as a special kind of gentrification. But some demographic experts (and the conventional wisdom) predicted that young adults’ fascination with urban living would fade as they settled down, got married, and had children, at which point they, too, would follow their parents and grandparents to the suburbs.

Perhaps not. A new peer-reviewed study (the article is forthcoming in the Journal of Regional Science) finds that not only have young people been a driving force in the urban resurgence of the past two decades, but they favor living in central urban neighborhoods significantly more than previous generations did at the same stages in life.

The study, by Yongsung Lee of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Bumsoo Lee and Md Tanvir Hossain Shubho of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tracks the net migration of young adults in the top 20 urbanized areas in the United States over the three-decade period spanning 1980 to 2010. The researchers contrast the migration and locational choices of four demographic cohorts: youngest adults, aged 20-24; young adults, aged 25-34; and two cohorts of older adults, aged 35-44 and 45-64.

Using census-tract data, they estimate and analyze the net migration of young adults who were 15 to 24 years old in the beginning year of each decade, and turned 25 to 34 years old in the ending year of each decade. The study looks at a complex of factors that bear on migration at the neighborhood or census-tract level: proximity to the center city, density, access to transit, and consumption amenities, as well as control variables for income, education, occupation, race and ethnicity, and housing stock.

Over the three decades, each passing cohort of young adults became progressively more urban. Young adults aged 25-34 have indeed been key movers in the urban revival. But the shift precedes Millennials; it actually began with Gen Xers back in the 1990s. And the youngest cohort, aged 20-24, is the most urban of all. American adults aged 20 to 34 are much more urban, and much less suburban, than the Baby Boomers.

Boomers and early Gen Xers showed a much stronger preference for the suburbs. Back in the 1980s, young adults at the time—mainly Boomers—were already heading for the suburbs, echoing the pattern of the Greatest Generation, which moved en masse from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But young adults in the 1990s were much less likely to move to the suburbs, setting in motion a pattern that grew even more pronounced for young adults in the 2000s. The authors note:

It is young adults of age 25-34 that show substantial changes in location choice over time. The net migration pattern of young adults in the 1980s—late Boomers in this period—was not much different from that of two older adult groups. However, the same age group who are early Gen Xers in the 1990s and late Gen Xers plus early Millennials in the 2000s shows much weaker preference for suburban locations than the previous generation.

The factors drawing people to the city differ for various cohorts or generations. The youngest group, those aged 20 to 24, consistently show the strongest preference for amenities. But the role of amenities (proxied by the density of retail, entertainment, recreation, and food-services employment) in attracting slightly older adults, aged 25 to 34, to urban centers has increased significantly over time. Amenities did not matter in the 1990s, yet came to matter significantly in the 2000s, the study concludes. However, what matters most for those aged 25-34 and 35-44 is access to transit. This is likely because transit matters more for how these groups commute to work.

The urban orientation of young adults has come at differing paces, depending on the type of city. Youthification occurred first in the superstar cities of New York and San Francisco. Those two were followed by Seattle in the 1990s, and Washington, D.C., and Miami in the early 2000s. It has taken less of a hold in Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis. “The recent urban revival by young population may not be present in all cities and regions,” the authors note, “but is more pronounced in certain types of cities that offer neighborhoods with concentrated urban amenities in the central city.”

The locational preferences of young adults hold large consequences. Millennials—those born between the years 1981 and 2000—make up America’s largest generation, bigger even than the Baby Boomers. Where they choose to live will have a lasting impact on which places grow, which stagnate, and which decline.

Ultimately, this study and others like it suggest that the urban preference of younger adults is no passing fad. It’s a great reset—which can be seen in the skyrocketing housing prices and affordability crises of a growing number of American cities.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  2. photo: an Uber driver.
    Perspective

    Did Uber Just Enable Discrimination by Destination?

    In California, the ride-hailing company is changing a policy used as a safeguard against driver discrimination against low-income and minority riders.

  3. photo: Robert Marbut, the incoming director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,
    Equity

    Here’s the Enforcer for Trump’s Punitive Agenda on Homelessness

    In Texas and Florida, Robert Marbut Jr. sold cities on a controversial model for providing homeless services. Now he’s bringing it to the White House.

  4. Transportation

    How Media Coverage of Car Crashes Downplays the Role of Drivers

    Safety advocates have long complained that media outlets tend to blame pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars. Research suggests they’re right.

  5. photo: a Tower Records Japan Inc. store in Tokyo, Japan.
    Life

    The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

    Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

×