One supposed trend, much celebrated in the media, is that younger people are moving back to the city, and plan to stay there for the rest of their lives. Retirees are reportedly following suit.
Urban theorists such as Peter Katz have maintained that millennials (the generation born after 1983) show little interest in “returning to the cul-de-sacs of their teenage years.” Manhattanite Leigh Gallagher, author of the dismally predictable book The Death of Suburbs, asserts with certitude that “millennials hate the suburbs” and prefer more eco-friendly, singleton-dominated urban environments.
Green activists hope this parting of the ways between the new generation and the preferences of their parents will prove permanent. The environmental magazine Grist even envisions “a hero generation” that will escape the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents.
Less idealistic types, notably on Wall Street, see profit in this new order, hoping to capitalize on what Morgan Stanley’s Oliver Chang dubs a “rentership society”; in this scenario millennials remain serfs paying rent permanently to the investor class.
But a close look at migration data reveals that the reality is much more complex. The millennial “flight” from suburbia has not only been vastly overexaggerated, it fails to deal with what may best be seen as differences in preferences correlated with life stages.
We can tell this because we can follow the first group of millennials who are now entering their 30s, and it turns out that they are beginning, like preceding generations, to move to the suburbs.
We asked demographer Wendell Cox to crunch the latest demographic data for us to determine where people have moved by age cohort from 2007 to 2012. The data reveals the obvious: People do not maintain the same preferences all their lives; their needs change as they get older, have children and, finally, retire. Each stage leads them toward somewhat different geographies.
As it turns out, the vast majority of young people in their late teens and 20s – over 80 percent — live outside core cities. Roughly 38 percent of young Americans live in suburban areas, while another 45 percent live outside the largest metropolitan areas, mostly in smaller metro areas.
To be sure, core urban areas do attract the young more than other age cohorts. Among people aged 15 to 29 in 2007, there is a clear movement to the core cities five years later in 2012 — roughly a net gain of 2 million. However, that’s only 3 percent of the more than 60 million people in this age group.
Surprisingly, most of this movement to the urban centers comes not from suburbs, but from outside the largest metro areas, reflecting the movement of people from areas with perhaps lower economic opportunity. It also is likely reflective of the intrinsic appeal of metro areas to younger, single people, as well as the presence of many major universities and colleges in older “legacy cities.”
Here’s how the geography of aging works. People are most likely to move to the core cities in their early 20s, but this migration peters out as people enter the end of that often tumultuous decade. By their 30s, they move increasingly to the suburbs, as well as outside the major metropolitan areas (the 52 metropolitan areas with a population over 1,000,000 in 2010).
This pattern breaks with the conventional wisdom but dovetails with research conducted by Frank Magid and Associates that finds that millennials prefer suburbs long-term as “their ideal place to live” by a margin of 2 to 1 over cities.
Based on past patterns, by the time people enter their 50s, the entire gain to the core cities that builds up in the 20s all but dissipates, as more people move to suburbs and to outside the largest metropolitan areas.
Similarly millennials have not, as some hope, given up on home ownership, something closely associated with suburbia. Magid’s surveys of older, married millennials found their desire to own a home was actually stronger than in previous generations. Another survey by the online banking company TD Bank found that 84 percent of renters aged 18 to 34 intend to purchase a home in the future, while another, by Better Homes and Gardens, found that three in four identified homeownership as “a key indicator of success.”
These attitudes, particularly among the older edge of the millennials, is particularly critical, as these are the first of this largest generation in American history to enter full adulthood. Indeed the peak of the millennial generation is already in their mid-20s, and by the end of the decade, the vast majority of the roughly 42 million millennials will be entering their 30s, with some approaching their 40s. This group of mature millennials (adding in the 20-24 cohort) is expected to expand by 22.5 million in the next 10 years. They are likely to prove wrong the argument that, with boomers entering their sunset years, there will be no one to buy their houses.
In contrast, the next wave of young people — now under 10 — will be about 1.7 million less numerous. These “plurals” are likely to stay in the suburbs for the next five to 10 years, and some wil start moving into core cities as they enter their 20s, but in decidedly fewer numbers.
Perhaps the most salient fact driving these migratory patterns is family formation. Our analyses of cities around the world have shown definitively that people with children tend to avoid urban cores, even in the most gentrified environments. Manhattan, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle tend to have the lowest numbers of children per capita.
These trends can be seen on a nationwide basis. Among the cohort of children under 10 in 2007, the number who lived in core cities as of 2012, when they were 5 to 14 years of age, was down by 550,000. Families are the group most likely to move either to the suburbs or smaller towns. This movement, plus the high degree of childlessness in large urban cores, suggests that many of those who are leaving the core cities in their early 30s are parents with young children.
And what about the older cohorts, notably the baby boomers, who, along with millennials, dominate the nation’s demography? The shift out to the suburbs and to outside the larger metropolitan areas does not stop with the child-bearing years but gains more traction with age, peaking in the early 60s. At this stage, only half as many seniors, on a percentage basis, live in core cities compared to people in their early 20s. Overall, the core cities are home to approximately 15% of the U.S. population, but that falls to under 12% of the population in the 64- to 79-year-old demographic.
This is not to say that most older people leave the suburbs. Almost 40 percent of seniors remain in suburban areas. Nevertheless there is some movement among the senior population, and among aging boomers, not “back to the city” as common alleged but actually towards the non-metropolitan areas, where costs are often lower and the pace of life slower. Among those now in their 60s, nearly half live outside the major metropolitan areas, four times as many as live in the urban core.
What do these finding suggest about the geography of aging? First, it makes clear that many people’s preferences change as they age: In aggregate there is a slight tendency toward core cities in the late teens and 20s, and then, to suburbs and outside the major metropolitan after that. Second, it seems clear that older Americans leave core cities all the way to their 70s rather than cluster there, as is often maintained in the media.
The demographic picture that emerges is complex, but suggests the best way for metropolitan areas to “lure” people — and companies — may be to encourage a wide range of housing lifestyles, ranging from inner city to suburban and exurban/rural. The urban pundit class may never change their preferences or abandon their claims of a secular “back to the city” trend, but in aggregate, people, it appears, do tend to change preferences as they age, something rarely acknowledged but certain to shape our geography for decades to come.