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Are the “urban millennials” a real thing?

There has been quite a bit of hype around the idea that millennials are gravitating towards city centers. Canadian professor Markus Moos calls it “youthification” and has recently put together some maps and data to prove it. But finding more hard numbers can be difficult. Is this hype only the result of a few hot spots like Brooklyn and Portlandia or is it a nationwide phenomenon? And how different is the distribution of age groups today from what it was not long ago?

Turns out that we also have a report coming out soon on demographic shifts in America’s metropolitan areas and a key part of that equation is young adults. Downtowns, it turns out, suddenly have a disproportionate share of them. They haven’t always been there. In 1990, young adults weren’t much more concentrated in the center than out in the suburbs.

This trend holds true in nearly every city across the country. I looked at the generation generally classified as “millennials” – all those born after 1980, from the age of 22 (so as to filter out most undergrads at any colleges that might be located in these metropolitan areas) all the way up to 34. I then graphed them as a proportion of the population based on their distance from the center of the city. In these graphs, the left side represents the city center and neighborhoods are graphed based on their distance from that center. The consistency of the shift is startling. Use the drop down menu to see data from different cities (you can view the map in Tableau as well):

Note that across the country, young adults make up a smaller percentage of the population than they have in a long time. It’s not because there are fewer of them (though there may be soon), but because there are far more older people. Thus, in any given area or group, they make up a smaller proportion of the population. They are particularly hard to find in the outer ring of suburbs and exurbs, where 22-34 year-olds often make up 10-15% of the population, slightly lower than many rural areas.

But there is one place where their share of the population has stayed constant or is rising rapidly: the area within a few miles of the city center.

Why is this happening?

Is this a generational attitudinal shift or the result of larger economic and demographic forces? It’s probably a bit of both.

  • Surveys show that younger people are more interested than other age groups in walkable urban neighborhoods and place less value than any previous generation on home ownership, car ownership, and driving.
  • But it’s also true that they face more difficult entry-level employment prospects than the previous generation and are increasingly saddled with student loan debt that may make it more difficult to get a mortgage.
  • They are also getting married and having kids much later, meaning that concerns about extra space, safety, and school districts don’t start to matter to many until their late 30’s. Some have suggested that what America has seen over the past decade is not the coming-of-age of a unique generation, but the emergence of a new stage of life.
  • Some have also suggested that this is the result of jobs shifting into the core. The high-paying entry-level job opportunities that do exist are increasingly in growing sectors like technology and finance that are more likely to locate downtown. But the experience of San Francisco and the “Google buses” should give us some pause here. The most striking thing to me about the Google Bus controversy is what an incredible thing it is that a large contingent of employees would pay a huge premium to live in a smaller apartment farther from work – just so they can be in the heart of the city. Our existing models for location choice have no explanation for this. Educated millennials may be following the jobs, but it’s also quite likely that tech companies in need of young talent are following them. Residential demand is driving most downtown revivals and is only later followed by commercial development. Google, which has been opening offices in cities across the country over the past few years, has learned from its experience in California and is locating nearly every new office in city’s downtown areas.

“More” does not mean “all.”

It’s important not to overstate any trend. Often demographers note that a change is taking place in some group. “Ten percent more of those in X group are doing Y.” That can have huge implications that are worth looking at, but it’s quickly translated to “X group is doing Y,” when it’s really only a portion of them who are driving the headlines. While this is a clear and doggedly consistent trend across the country that has had and will continue to have a huge impact on real estate markets, urban tax bases, transit systems, the auto industry, and many more facets of American life, it still represents a limited number of young people. It’s also a change that is happening right now, so we don’t yet know how far it will go or how long it will last.