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City-Loving Millennials: Are They Born That Way?

July 28th, 2011 by

The Piazza, new apartment buildings on the site of the old Schmidt's brewery in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. Photo source: the author

 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.

27 Responses to “City-Loving Millennials: Are They Born That Way?”

  1. Dan Fatton says:

    Spending my childhood in suburbia, relying on car trips to reach most points of interest had more influence on my desire to live in an urban environment than any change in discourse. Watching the farms and fields of Hunterdon County be replaced with more sprawl was appalling. At the same time, there was a palpable boredom, feeling like there was nothing to do in our struggling downtown. The city was exciting, full of people and options. Although I am not technically a millennial, my rejection of suburbia had way more to do with the experience of actually living in that environment than the advocacy of its critics.

  2. Rich L. says:

    In order to formulate an opinion, I need a working definition of what “Highly-Educated” is.

  3. I agree with the comment above- my own upbringing on a Hunterdon County cul-de-sec sparked a career in land use development and an interest in intelligent planning. The negative effects of traditional suburban land use planning on people’s health, community and overall happiness are well-known. It’s no surprise that there’s a backlash now that those kids who grew up with those ill effects are making housing choices.

    I’d argue further that the popularity of postwar residential suburban development was an anomaly in human history. People lived for centuries in mixed-use urban centers, which didn’t really begin to shift until the late 1940s. Suburban residential development arose in response to a rather unique set of demographic circumstances– the most important of course was the baby boom. As the mid-20th century retreats into history, with it goes the popularity of cigarettes, vinyl-covered furniture, Ricky Nelson songs and Levittown-style development patterns.

  4. I grew up in rural Somerset County on a 6 acre plot, so my perspective as a live, work, play devotee has definitely been shaped by the inability to walk to a neighbors house. A lot of my friends who grew up in rural/suburban surroundings posses similar viewpoints. So judging from my circle, the rejection of our “land use” upbringing has been a major driving force to embrace urban living.

    In addition, I firmly believe that the advent of new media and the openness that it breeds pushes people toward urban living. I’ve written extensively about the connection between the two, and I think there is a clear linkage, as a result of the free flow of information and social desire to be part of the action. Technology (especially Web 2.0 applications) is making city living easier and fun.

    Lastly, economics plays a significant role, in that low density living presents a lot of practical cost issues.

  5. Elaine Clisham says:

    (Disclosure: Not a Millennial.)

    I grew up overseas (in a suburb that had a village center around a train station, and in a residential area of a city). When I first looked for a place to live in this country, I remember visiting suburb after suburb and thinking, “Where’s the center of town? Where do people hang out? Do their shopping?” I couldn’t understand how suburbs were so popular and the housing so expensive, but I figured a lot of people lived in them so there had to be something attractive to them!

    Turns out my initial instincts were right. So I do wonder if there isn’t an element of personal observation going on here, as other commenters have noted — the boomers’ suburban malaise is now fully manifest for all to see, and the Millennials are having no part of it.

  6. Chris says:

    I grew up in an unwalkable section of Towson, Md. – a suburb of Baltimore that does have a nice little walkable downtown, but that’s not where I lived. I felt very isolated as a child, and only later did I realize it was at least partly because I couldn’t walk anywhere. The closest business was a mile away, and half the route had no sidewalks or shoulders whatsoever. I clearly recall being frustrated that I was stuck in this boring (if beautiful) place, and dependent on my parents to do anything.

    I think what really opened my eyes was attending college. College is great for many reasons, but one is the fact that most of your life is within walking distance. It occurred to me – why isn’t life like this? Granted, life is a little more complex than college, but why couldn’t you live in a city neighborhood near your job, and make friends there, and not spend seemingly half your life in a car?

    Well, you can say “well, that’s just how life is, so deal with it,” but that was never good enough for me. Clearly, I’m not alone.

  7. I grew up in a medium-density neighborhood in a suburb about ten minutes outside Albany, New York. You really had to have a license and a car in order to do anything, be it meet up with friends or grab a quick bite to eat. I’m not sure there was one big moment where I realized that I’m pro-city, but I’m willing to believe that the previously-mentioned upbringing in the digital age has played a role. Suburbia is inherently bubble-wrapped — cities are more interconnected and more representative of a wider population, and can better cater to the on-demand lifestyle that’s been the hallmark of those raised with (and in many instances, by) the internet.

    There’s probably also something to be said for the generally more progressive viewpoints of my generation, with heightened awareness of the detrimental ecological effects of suburban living probably playing a large role as well.

  8. Kevin says:

    Not a millennial but moving into the city as soon as my kids are done with college. Tired of living in the beautiful but culturally dead rural/suburban community.

  9. Angie says:

    One explanation I have often heard is television shows. The last generation grew up watching Leave It to Beaver. But we grew up watching Friends and Sex in the City.

    Another explanation, I think, is that young people are naturally more sensitive to environmental concerns. We are the ones who are going to have to clean up the giant mess other generations left behind.

    Finally, young people are delaying marriage, and it’s natural that they would gravitate toward environments that are full of other young singles. The reasons that they are delaying marriage are both economic and technological.

  10. Jay Corbalis says:

    Grew up in the suburbs. Was constantly bored/hung out at Wawa a lot. Now live in a city/am much less bored (though still enjoy Wawa)

  11. Raul says:

    I think my generation (I’m on the border of Gen-Y/Millenial) understands that suburban living is environmentally damaging and, having grown up in the suburbs, perhaps spiritually unsatisfying and even boring. Also, everyone I know came to see housing as a trap if not a scam with the real estate bubble bursting, with so many lives ruined by this insane quest to own a pile of sticks in the burbs.

  12. Wendy says:

    As I’ve written elsewhere, I think what defines “freedom” has changed. Boomers and Gen X likely believed they achieved it when they bought their first car. Millennials, it was their first iPhone (or equiv.) And, as so many have said above, it’s being somewhere where you don’t have to drive that feels like freedom.

  13. Wendy says:

    Wanted to add. These comments are great. Keep them coming.

    I have another theory if anyone wants to comment: Parents needed/wanted the suburbs, as it made raising kids easier in many ways, but it was never the best thing for the kids. Society just convinced us that being isolated was healthier; own large back yard was healthier; not having to see poverty was healthier, etc.

    I live in a dense area (Walkscore 98) but we happen to have a house with a backyard. For a couple years, it was a construction mess from our renos, so I`d take my son and then kids to the park, hanging out with the community. Since the backyard was fixed up, it’s easier to have the kids play there because I can then cook / or do some chores and keep an eye on them. Point being, it’s easier for me, but probably better for the kids and society if we were in the park. Fall resolution–more time in the park.

  14. Nina Pilar says:

    Millenials have neither the same goals or working conditions of pro-subarbanites. When suburbia was at its peak, there were alot of jobs at multiple skill levels that paid a wage that supported the lifestyle (along with the general costs of living). People were married at a much younger age, and the propaganda of the time (buy, consume, buy, consume, and drive) had alot of appeal.

    The work pattern was more structured. People could work just 8 hours a day and live a decent life. That’s not really the case anymore.

    Millenials are driven to put work first in order to secure a decent wage. (Many fellow Millenials in my circle are total workaholics – there’s just no choice these days. But we also see ambition as fulfillment in itself – at least in the short term).

    So that means we need to have our friends, our entertainment, and our groceries close to our homes – and our homes a bearable distance from the job. Suburban life for us would literally kill most chances/opportunities for success.

    • Kelly says:

      Actually Millennials from my experience tend to have a more “work to live” outlook as opposed to the Boomers’ “live to work” desire (who are probably the true workaholics of the generations, which is another thing that younger workers are rejecting).

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree.I’m of the millenial generation. My father worked every bit of OT he could get his hands on. I appreciate and admire the hard work he did for us. However he died just as he hit retirement age. For months it ate away at me that he spent over forty years of his life working as many hours as he could, thinking he’d get to enjoy it all in his golden years, and he didn’t. I swore after that happened that I would work hard, I would take care of myself, but I would also live my life while I could, because tomorrow is not a guarantee.

  15. W H says:

    I’m not sure it’s so simple making the deduction that millennials want to live in cities counter to their parents. Right now single millennials are attracted to urban areas and cities like Portland, Hoboken, NYC, Phili, + and prefer living in these places, sure. I think, however, that millennials are going to prove very similar to their parents in that millennials will marry and have children and move out of cities into lower density urban centers.

    Kingsly Davis writes about the difference between urbanization and the growth of cities in a way that makes sense to me. Following his lead, the distinction I would make is that the majority of millennials will move out cities and settle in urban centers surrounding the central city. Many will reject surburia (spread out pattern of living) because of its isolation and the high cost of commute related to shopping, traveling, driving to work, etc.

    Urban centers will allow millennials (those raised in surburia and those raised in cities) what they will come to want due to nostalgia-dwellings larger than a two bedroom apartment in NYC or Phili, etc. I do think that their concern for the environment will have them strike this compromise between city living and suburban living. An urban center will allow them to have a dwelling place slightly bigger than an apartment in the city with more sustainable land use – a much smaller plot of land (not like the massive lawns popular today) that they will enjoy playing baseball in the back yard, etc with their children. I think the urban centers millennials will settle in will developed, per their request, public transportation networks that will allow them to commute to the city easily. I think, more than any other generation before, millennials whole heartedly prefer and approve of mass transit.

    • Tim Evans says:

      This last paragraph of yours I think is key. You don’t necessarily have to be in a big city to be living in a smart-growth environment. There are plenty of older towns and inner suburbs that offer almost all of the advantages of the big city, just maybe not a 24-hour street life or big job clusters, but mostly everything else. And they offer some things that you can’t get in the big city, like a small yard and a place to park your car on the street. I tend to implicitly include these places when talking about “centers” as opposed to “sprawl”.

      For example, speaking about the area I’m familiar with (I grew up, and currently live, in southeastern PA), you have places like Doylestown, Glenside, Ambler, Lansdale, Quakertown, Conshohocken, Norristown, Pottstown, Boyertown, Phoenixville, West Chester, Media, Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, etc. — all places with a variety of housing types, mostly on smaller lots, and with stores you can walk to. Many of them also have train stations that facilitate commuting into Phila and its high concentration of job opportunities. I would certainly count growth in these places as supporting the thesis that we are seeing a resurgence in desire for more compact growth patterns.

      This is why I have such a problem with the shoddy analysis that posits a strict city/suburb dichotomy. Most such binary partitions count only the major city in a metro area as the “city” part and lump everything else together as “suburbs”. (Joel Kotkin does this deliberately because it artificially inflates the ideological point that he’s decided in advance he wants to make, but plenty of other people do it too, without realizing that it dilutes the message.) Such a partition severely undercounts the demand for in-town living by ignoring (actually, worse — by counting in the wrong column!) Norristown, Phoenixville, West Chester, etc. But as you point out, these places are only “suburban” in the sense that they’re not the big city of their metro area. Design-wise, they have a lot more in common with Philadelphia than they do with the cul-de-sac subdivisions where you can’t even walk to the Target that’s within spitting distance, so they ought to be tallied in the smart-growth column.

      • Jake Wegmann says:

        @ Tim Evans,

        Nicely said, and I totally agree.

        I don’t think that the “city” versus “suburb” terminology is serving us very well anymore, if it ever did.

        Christopher Leinberger has attempted to introduce a lexicon of “walkable” places within metro areas, regardless of whether they are nearer to the core or towards the outskirts.

        Some city centers — maybe especially in the Sunbelt, but also perhaps places like Hartford — aren’t terribly walkable. Meanwhile, a lot of commuter RR suburbs have wonderful town centers. And then certain small towns outside of metro areas have historic/revived centers that are completely walkable and where it is possible to live an “urban” life (if urban means living a good portion of your life on foot).

        So I think we need to be careful about falling into the trap of “city = good” and “suburb = bad” (or the reverse, if you’re Joel Kotkin), and be precise about exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve, regardless of where we find it.

      • Metz says:

        I agree and in fact I think the reverse is true. Sometimes areas that may be in “the city” are in fact more suburban than what people call the suburbs. For example, parts of Staten Island or Eastern Queens are much less walkable than a “suburb” like Hoboken, Stamford, or New Rochelle. I think a lot of the disparity can be attributed to the arbitraryness of city and state boundries, not that there’s anything wrong with that. People just have to acknowledge it and take it into account when attempting to make “urban vs. suburban” distinctions

  16. Ayanthi says:

    I recently graduated from college and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey (Monmouth County). It kills me how much my family and I rely on the car and how much of a hassle it is when a car is out of commission. I hate how my parents and so many of our neighbors commute for several miles and hours just to get to and from work, especially those that work in Manhattan.

    I guess living in the suburbs isn’t exactly cheap, but most major cities have a pretty high cost of living! Imagine a single person trying to live in a 1 bedroom apartment in NYC or DC? You’d have to be making some serious money! Given that I’ve recently graduated with a liberal arts degree and am having a tough time finding a job, it’s pretty intimidating to factor in the cost of living when looking at jobs.

    • Gary says:

      Many cities have cheaper albeit less appealing districts that are popular with younger people. And although housing in cities is generally more expensive, you can often get by without the not insubstantial expense of owning and maintaining a car.

      • Ayanthi says:

        ^ very true. I did not take into account the fact that I would not own/maintain a car. There are still a few cities that you’d need a car- I went to college in Atlanta and believe me, you need a car in Atlanta! But I’m hoping that for the most part, a car would not be necessary.

  17. Craig Cetta says:

    I think we should also consider the safety improvements and urban renewal across the country and specifically New Jersey’s cities. The parents of the millennial generation, the traditional baby boomers, faced a very different urban fabric when they were first entering the work force/rental market. Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s were dramatically different places than we find them today. Also, the remarkable rise of Manhattan from the gritty 1970’s has provided the jobs that have driven NJ’s most dynamic urban environments. Would Hoboken, Jersey City and increasingly Newark/Harrison have gentrified so quickly without first the artists and later white-collar workers being priced out of Manhattan’s rental/for-sale market? I doubt it.

    I’m 29 and proud to be a part of the generation driving the redevelopment and renaissance of cities across the country and I think many of my fellow millennials feel the same.

  18. Claire Bell says:

    This is hardly ground-breaking. I’ve never met a 20something dreaming of moving to the ‘burbs… of any generation. Young people are drawn towards the centre of things, and then they have some babies and are drawn towards a bigger garden. And so the world turns.

  19. DCBird says:

    Here’s a cynical, me-first Millennial answer from a not-so-cynical or me-first Millennial: cities are more fun. Our generation has been taught since we were small that we deserve to have it all. A fulfilling job that pays well so that we can by cool things, take adventurous trips, and hang out at exciting place. We have the right to enjoy ourselves, we think, and the city offers far more opportunities for this type of fun than the suburbs.

  20. True Knowledge says:

    I do not believe in categorizing age groups into generations. A “generation” is a social construct, not a natural fact. For example, people are born in a “continuum.” That is, you do not have 50 million babies born from 1900 to 1918, then no births during the next 2 decades, then another 65 million during the following 16 years. Also, in terms of culture, not everyone born in, say, the 1980s and ’90s has the same characteristics. For instance, there are people born during the 1960s who have the latest in technology and are liberal on social issues. Just like there are men and women born during the ’90s who oppose same – sex marriage, do not have Facebook or a smartphone, and who like the Beatles. This whole idea of saying “generation X or Y was born between this year and that year” is really just a mass – media and marketing tool, which is why I define a generation as “the attitudes and lifestyle of any given individual.” By the way, I was born in 1979 and consider myself a Millenial because I do not have much in common with Gen X. Like they say, “let people be who they want to be.”

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