Are Millennials Really More Urban Than Previous Generations?

Most of them actually live in the suburbs.
June 2015
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William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Blowback against the urban legend of the millennials has begun. We’re still seeing 10 stories a day about how they’re reviving city neighborhoods, but traditionalist pundits such as Joel Kotkin suggest that we have reached “peak urban millennial.” Millennials, he argues, will soon start getting married, having kids and moving to the suburbs just like they’re supposed to. So are millennials actually different?

To be sure, they are changing our cities in a fundamental way. They are reclaiming and activating huge swaths of the urban core and having an enormous impact on our markets for all kinds of things -- nice apartment buildings, Uber, Airbnb, food trucks. I think it’s safe to say nothing like this has happened to cities in my lifetime.

On the other hand, as Kotkin and others consistently point out, most millennials don’t live in the urban core. The vast majority of them live in the suburbs -- often with their parents. The Census recently reported that in Fort Bend County, Texas, an ethnically diverse suburb of Houston, more than 40 percent of people ages 18 to 34 live with their parents. So what’s really going on?

First, it doesn’t take many millennials to revive a lot of urban neighborhoods. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles recently found that only about 6 percent of millennials can be categorized as “urbanists.” Still, for almost a century we built only suburbs, so 6 percent is more than enough to make a visible dent in older city neighborhoods.

Second, not all millennials are alike. When we talk about them, we tend to talk about a certain small slice of upper-middle-class, college-educated twentysomethings. Most millennials don’t fall into this category. These folks don’t have college degrees or new-economy jobs, and they don’t get much media attention.

And finally, just because millennials don’t live in the urban core doesn’t mean they’re not living an urban lifestyle in one way or another -- for better or worse. Plenty of those luxury apartment buildings are being built in auto-oriented, suburban-style neighborhoods -- especially away from the coasts.

The real question is whether most millennials will follow the traditional suburban pattern. The answer is probably yes and no. Yes, more millennials will get married, have kids and buy suburban homes. But they’re doing this in the face of massive demographic change: People are waiting longer to get married. They’re choosing to have fewer kids -- if they have them at all. And they’re living longer.

Which means that even if they move to the suburbs, they’ll probably be back. Millennials will be adults for 60 years or more. Those who become parents will have kids at home for maybe only 20 of those 60 years. They’ll probably be yo-yo millennials. They might head out to the suburbs when their kids reach school age, but they’ll be back in the city when the kids go to college.

Just like me and most of my boomer friends, as a matter of fact.