Millennials and Suburbia?

Background Reading


© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Ben Casselman argues that the supposed millennial affection for cities is a myth. Casselman points out that more millennials are moving to the suburbs than to cities:

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week, 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426,000 moved in the other direction. Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even starker: 721,000 moved out of the city, compared with 554,000 who moved in. Somewhat more people in both age groups currently live in the suburbs than in the city.

Indeed, for all the talk of the rebirth of American cities, the draw of the suburbs remains powerful. Across all ages, races, incomes and education groups, more Americans are still moving out of cities than in. (Urban populations are still growing, but because of births and immigration, not internal migration.)

The common narrative isn’t entirely wrong about the long-term trend lines. Millennials are moving to the suburbs at a much lower rate than past generations did at the same age. In the mid-1990s, people ages 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa. Today, they’re only about a quarter more likely. But even that slowdown appears to be mostly about people delaying their move to the suburbs, not forgoing it entirely. Today’s 30- to 44-year-olds are actually heading for the suburbs at a significantly faster rate than in the 1990s.

Is this true? Have a million trend pieces about young, bearded urban hipsters buying locally made artisanal pickles been wrong? Is the resurgence of urbanism just a mirage?

Only in part. Casselman is right that the supposed preference for inner cities among affluent younger people is being overhyped by the media. The reason, which Casselman sort of suggests toward the end of his piece, is that journalists and other creative culture influencers live in a handful of places — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. — that have way more young creatives in the inner city than you find in more typical American cities like Cleveland or Memphis. In most metro areas, the overwhelming majority of people with means live in the suburbs, as do a large majority even in metro New York.

All that being said, Casselman understates the reality and importance of the fact that more people are choosing to live in cities. For decades, the share of people who could afford to live in the suburbs but chose the inner city was tiny and shrinking. Now it is growing, even if it remains a minority.

It’s also worth noting that even some of those people who live in suburbs prefer walkable urbanism to car-dependent, carbon-intensive suburban sprawl. Small towns and inner-ring suburbs can offer walkable urbanism, and many of the people moving to suburbs are favoring those areas with denser, mixed-use downtowns. Perhaps more of those people would like to live in the inner city but are avoiding crime, seeking better public schools, or following jobs, which have largely dispersed to suburbia.


There are a few millennials in the Urban Cycling Movement who actually moved to the city from the suburbs. But for the most part the ones who are familiar with the suburbs or still live in them are residing in places abutting the city itself.

But the most telling thing about millennials is that as they begin families they have to make a decision as to where they plan to live. Kids change all of the ‘idealistic notions‘ that plague single activists. And suddenly, as with the recent defections of famous personalities living in Lincoln Park, you have to decide whether the changing nature of the city is what you value most or the future of your child.

There is only so much beer that you can drink before you realize you have spent half your life in a stupor and there is ‘no one special‘ on the horizon. That can be a very depressing realization.

The Urban Cycling Movement is more of a singles social club than anything else. And even for those paired up with another person, there is a very good likelihood that they are childless. Having children is not about finding a cargo bike and trundling the little darlings off to the grocery store or the bring home some hardware.

Instead it is all about going to school, joining perhaps a church, enrolling in a scout troop or a sports team league and living your life once and for all on your own terms. Being an activist is more about being somewhat selfish and idealist than it is about being ‘real‘.

Real is what you are when you suddenly realize you are just too damned tired to join the fellas for yet another mindless Midnight Marauder Ride that has not purpose. Being real is when you discover that you would rather trundle your shaggy butt home to drink a beer on the couch and cuddle your infant while watching something from 25 years ago on television. That is what real people do. Staying after work to attend the Mayors Bicycle Advisory Committee is what you do when you have no real life.

Watching your kids play a little league game or talking a walk down to the soft serve ice cream shoppe is what real people do. And all these things are more easily done in the suburbs.

It really does not matter whether some writer got it right about where millennials are headed. They are going wherever they do go. But suffice it to say that the census numbers in Chicago show a downward trend in the more affluent neighborhoods. And that my friends is something else that is ‘real‘.