City-Loving Millennials: Are They Born That Way?
July 28th, 2011 by Tim Evans
On the Brookings Institution’s blog, Chris Leinberger writes about a renewed interest in downtown locations among corporations seeking to relocate. In ruminating on what might be behind this nascent reversal of the job-decentralization trend that has persisted over the last three decades, Leinberger boils it down to a simple point: “The Millennial generation is demanding it.”
Highly-educated young workers, the life’s blood of many industries, have been flocking to center cities in recent years … They are voting with their feet for a hip, high-density walkable lifestyle and a reverse commute to the ‘burbs is not in the cards for most of them.
In other words, if the workforce of the future wants to be in the city, the jobs are going to have to relocate there, too.
”Millennials” – a term for the generation born roughly between 1982 and 2001 – and their apparent preference for a more urban lifestyle have been hot topics among urban analysts and commentators over the last few years. Richard Florida first gained attention for his postulation of a “creative class” and how courting it could be a path to recovery for cities, but he has more recently come to view an urban renaissance as being more likely precipitated by a generation-wide reboot:
Young people just out of college tell me that they don’t want their parents’ suburban lifestyle; they’d prefer to find an affordable rental apartment in a city they love where economic opportunities are better. They don’t want to go into hock buying a big house and a big car, just so they can endure a long commute.
Real estate expert Jeffrey Otteau sounded a similar theme in his address at New Jersey Future’s 2011 Redevelopment Forum (see pp. 37-43 of Otteau’s presentation [pdf]), saying that “Gen Y wants walkable and affordable mixed-use.”
CNN has also noticed the movement of jobs back into cities and attributes it at least in part to the locational preferences of younger workers:
As fuel costs soar again, as cities clean up their acts, and as corporations trip over themselves to be seen as great places for young, highly-educated professionals to work, urban locations have become more attractive.
Meanwhile, anti-city critics Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox are scrambling to construct superficially credible but disingenuous arguments that this is not happening, including resorting once again to employing a wildly expansive definition of “suburb” that includes Jersey City in order to reinforce their preferred narrative of continued suburban supremacy.
One rather important question that often goes unexamined in this discussion, however, is what accounts for the change in young workers’ tastes. Big-picture analysts like Leinberger, Florida and Otteau tend to speak about Millennials’ inclination toward in-town living (or working) as if it’s a naturally occurring demographic phenomenon, something to be factored in as an a priori assumption when anticipating what development patterns are going to look like in the future. Demographics is destiny, and this particular demographic happens to want to live in higher-density, mixed-use environments. This is undeniably good news for groups like New Jersey Future that have been advocating for a move back toward such compact development patterns and away from the low-density, single-use, car-dependent sprawl that has predominated since World War II; it means we have a natural ally in the next generation of homebuyers and renters.
But is “natural” the right word? Did the Millennials spring from the womb with these preferences fully formed? Or might these allies have actually been cultivated over time? Perhaps their attitudes evolved in tandem with an ongoing academic, public-policy, and even pop-culture critique of post-WWII development (including workplace geography) and all of its flaws and dysfunctions, a critique that has grown louder and broader over the course of several decades.
Two years ago, New Jersey Future convened a symposium on the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, a reality check to assess whether the plan had been effective at changing land use patterns in New Jersey and to debate whether it could be an effective organizing tool once again. Some participants came into the event feeling that desired changes were not materializing, that “nothing was changing” on the ground. But there was also an undeniable sense that the plan has served as a powerful educational tool, changing the terms of the public discourse on growth and development and inspiring decision-makers to consider new alternatives. So maybe it’s not that nothing changes, it’s that things change so gradually – say, over the course of a generation – that it’s hard to perceive any effect without stepping back from the canvas.
The “why” of Millennials’ counter-reaction to the suburban cul-de-sacs and office parks of their parents’ generation is something the experts tend not to explore very deeply, but perhaps we can legitimately point to their change in attitude as being a direct and tangible result of education and advocacy efforts, rather than some exogenous demographic force that just happens to be working in our favor. Perhaps the younger generation has been paying attention when critics have pointed out how sprawling development patterns are using up our remaining open lands inefficiently and forcing people to spend more time in their cars. It’s at least a good question for planners and policy-makers to ponder if they’re having doubts about whether their work is bearing fruit.