Millennials will move to the suburbs when they’re ready, just like everyone else…


As an early Gen-Xer, I have to roll my eyes every time I see a think piece about Millennials and what they want out of life.  The Gen-X curse is to grow up in the shadow of the the most solipsistic generation in history, the Baby Boomers, and now in middle age to endure the entitled brats they raised.

And so we see it again in a recent article in my local suburban newspaper about — wait for it — what local suburbs are doing to attract Millennials to live there:

Faced with aging populations, stagnant post-“great recession” economies and static or declining tax bases, local villages, towns and cities are eyeing millennials and young professionals as potential saviors. It’s the same story across the nation as communities look for ways to attract 18- to 34-year-olds.

With an estimated 75.4 million people in that age group, the Pew Research Center says millennials surpassed the nation’s 74.9 million baby boomers last year, making them the largest generation in the U.S. Their numbers alone suggest that millennials will soon drive the economy and culture, and that the communities they choose to call home will reap the benefits.

So what are these suburbs doing to try to attract 20-somethings to come live there?  All the stuff that, say, people like me would have liked 20 years ago, the stuff that 20-somethings ALWAYS like: affordable rental apartments, nightlife, restaurants, entertainment, recreation, hiking trails, mass transit to the city.

I mean, are they hiring EXPERTS to tell them this, that young people want affordable housing?  That young people want restaurants and nightlife?  Do we really need a focus group of Millennial Panelists to tell us that they like going out at night?

My god, these people drive me crazy.  There’s nothing special about them, nothing new in the attitude that they want to live in the city and hate the idea of moving to the suburbs.  These 25 year olds are like all 25 year olds, going back to when the suburbs were invented.

Let me save everyone a lot of time and money: Millennials will move to the suburbs when they grow up, just like everyone else.  

So stop wasting your time.  You’re never going to get a 25 year-old to move from the greatest city in the world just because you have an artisanal “home-decor shop that purveys mono floral honey produced by nomadic beekeepers in Sicily.”  No matter what they do in New Rochelle, or Mount Vernon, or Dobbs Ferry, or Hastings, they’re never going to create anything that’s more than the faintest, palest imitation of what Millennials can get in Manhattan. And why settle for downtown White Plains when you have the real thing 20 miles away?

If you don’t believe me, here’s what a Millennial herself had to say about these efforts:

Developers try to convince millennials of the “value” of these new luxury developments by installing high-end appliances, but value isn’t just having a dishwasher and Sub-Zero fridge. They also try to recreate the convenience of New York City by building “urban villages,” but, to me, transit-oriented, mixed-use developments are little more than ersatz recreations of what comes naturally in big cities. All the amenities might be there, but, at the end of the day, they’re just another suburban development that feels too sterile and artificial, closer in spirit to a retirement community than somewhere a person in their 20s wants to live. And really, if all I wanted was to live in an overpriced, luxury apartment on a block with an artisanal coffee shop that’s not too far from a train station, I’d live in Manhattan.

If you can get past the self-centeredness of a 25 year old typical of a generation taught by their Baby Boomer parents that Galileo was wrong, you can see the problem.  There is absolutely nothing that developers or planners can do to attract young people to the suburbs by trying to compete with the city.

Millennials, like all other young people, are only going to move from the city if one of two things happen.

First, they’ll move if they can’t afford it. And mostly they can’t, not anymore. When I was 25, my first apartment in the city was $700 a month for a studio on 34th street right above the Lincoln Tunnel, which represented about 30% of my monthly income.  You know what that studio rents for right now?  $400,000 a month.  Seriously.  It’s very expensive in the city.

Even then, though, young people will do anything to avoid moving to the suburbs. Even move to Brooklyn, which is basically a suburb but don’t tell anyone or you’ll kill the market.  And now they keep going deeper and deeper into Brooklyn until they eventually they’r going to realize that they’re living in Coney Island and it’s actually further from midtown than White Plains.

Second, they’ll move to the suburbs when they get married and have kids, and  realize that they need closet space.  After all, that’s basically why the suburbs were invented — as a place to settle down.

But here’s the good news for these suburban towns: Most people grow up.  The baby boomers thought the only time they’d go to the suburbs would be to dance in the mud at Woodstock, and they eventually settled most of the Hudson Valley.  Generation X never thought they’d move to the suburbs, and here I am.  And Millennials don’t think that they’ll ever move to the suburbs, but they will.

But not because they opened a new artisanal pickle shop in Dobbs Ferry.  They’re going to move to the suburbs for the same reason that everyone does — because babies make noise and you can’t sleep in the same room as them.

Does Moving to the Suburbs Make You a Conservative?

Is moving to the suburbs a political statement?  The reason I ask is that I’ve become increasingly aware of this raging battle between the forces of sprawl and the advocates of density, one that actually polarizes along familiar political lines: suburbs = conservative, and cities = liberal.

Now, it’s not just about how the cities tend to be more politically liberal and the suburbs more politically conservative. Yes, that’s absolutely and obviously true — you don’t get a lot of tea parties on the Upper West Side, and you don’t see too many “Free Mumia” banners hanging from the windows of high ranches in New City.

But it’s more about how the suburbs versus the cities arguments tend to reflect conservative and liberal values:
  • Suburbs:  Big houses, big lots, big cars, big highways, assimilation, personal freedom, ownership society.
  • City: Dense spaces, walkable neighborhoods, community involvement, concern for the environment, diversity, public transportation, renters over owners.
For example, check out this almost comical “suburban manifesto” put out by L. Brooks Patterson, the supervisor for Michigan’s Oakland County, titled “Sprawl, Schmall…Give Me More Development”, and tell me it doesn’t read like something being shouted by a guy in a colonial hat in front of a picture of President Obama morphing into Hitler:

Sprawl is not evil. In fact, it is good. It is the inevitable result of a free people exercising their cherished, constitutionally protected rights as individuals to pursue their dreams when choosing where to live, where to work, where to educate, and where to recreate.


The anti-American Dreamers would have you believe that suburban growth is at the root of all problems that beset our cities, both in Michigan and across our country.  They seem to believe that citizens left thriving cities, and that it was their departure that caused high crime, high taxes, invisible public services, and failing public school systems. Anybody who believes that line of thinking is taking denial to a whole new level. Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities. Cities declined because they squandered their assets. High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move.

It will probably not shock you that Mr. Patterson is a Republican.  But my point is that the pro-suburban argument properly articulated is inherently conservative: the individual over the community, assimilation over diversity, highways over public transportation, personal freedoms over environmental protection.
Conversely, the urbanist perspective is almost inescapably liberal, stressing how dense walkable neighborhoods foster a sense of community, reduce environmental impact, promote diversity, provide for affordable housing, and reduce transportation costs.  From the urbanist view,suburbs are ridiculously wasteful and hideously (and often subtly) subsidized.
All of this puts me in a difficult position, as a liberal who actually lives in the suburbs.  Does just living here make a political statement that I don’t value diversity, or the environment, or public transportation?  Am I betraying my own sensibilities to drive an SUV?  Do I need to get fitted for my tri-corner hat?
Maybe not.  As Allison Arieff points out in a response to Patterson in the New York Times, there’s a middle way between the glorification and vilification of sprawl, a movement to bring a more community-minded sensibility to suburban environments not as an act of governmental or political will, but simply a response to basic market demand:  developers who realize that many of their clients want those smaller, walkable neighborhoods, and people living in the suburbs who are finding ways to connect and foster a real community.  As she says, living “better and smarter shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
That makes sense to me. Like a lot of people who moved to the suburbs, I wasn’t making a political statement. I wasn’t taking sides in this battle, or foregoing my liberal sensibilities to adopt Mr. Patterson’s vision of the American Dream.
I just wanted more closet space.

More Census Data Indicating that the Suburbs are Growing

Wendell Cox of New Geography has an interesting analysis of suburban migration patterns coming out of some new Census data.  As we’ve discussed before, the Census reveals that the suburban population grew from the 2000 census, partly at the expense of urban areas but even more through migration from more rural areas:

Despite the higher gasoline prices and the illusions of a press that is often anti-suburban, both the suburbs and the exurbs continued to attract people from elsewhere in the nation. The core counties, which contain the core cities, continued to lose domestic migrants to other parts of the country, principally to the suburbs and the exurbs of the large metropolitan areas.

Cox also points out that current economic conditions have actually reduced domestic migration, particularly among young people who would be more likely to start moving around if they actually had somewhere to go — like, for a job.

We’ve commented on Cox’s work before.  He’s particularly vocal about challenging the prevailing assumption that people want to live in dense urban environments, arguing that the Census data simply doesn’t support that idea, and in fact shows increasing migration to the suburbs.  move

Some interesting charts and data.  Check it out.

Are the Fringe Suburbs Really Dying? The Brookings Institute Weighs in Again

We’ve written before about the “great debate” about whether the American love affair with the suburbs is dying. Basically, it’s a debate about where people SAY they want to live, and where they are actually choosing to live.  That is, people keep saying that they want to live in dense, diverse, urban environments, but Census data keeps showing migration from cities to the suburbs.

The Brookings Institution has been the loudest banger of the drum in favor of the argument that the suburbs are dying, that people don’t want to live in that sprawl anymore.  We see this again in a New York Times op-ed from Christian B. Leinberger, a senior fellow at Brookings, who contends  that planners need to recognize the need to develop walkable environments:

Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

The millennials are just now beginning to emerge from the nest — at least those who can afford to live on their own. This coming-of-age cohort also favors urban downtowns and suburban town centers — for lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars.

Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply, according to the Realtors survey. This lack of demand all but guarantees continued price declines. Boomers selling their fringe housing will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do will reverse this.

I don’t disagree with any of that, but neither do I buy that the fringe suburbs are dying.  I agree that we need to create more density in the suburbs — as someone who works in suburban real estate, I can attest that walkable village downtown areas command a premium on the market, precisely because people love the idea of living in the suburbs while still being able to get a cup of coffee without having to drive.

But I still think that there’s a whiff of “we want this to be true, so it is true” in these arguments. Certainly, census data does not support the idea that people are migrating to dense urban environments, and my experience of both working in the suburbs and now living in the suburbs suggests that there’s still a lot of interest in traditional suburban neighborhoods: big lots, picket fences, back yards, cul-de-sacs, the whole thing.  Would those people like to see more public transportation options, and more walkable downtowns?  Yes, of course.  The question is whether they’d be willing to pay for them.  That, I’m not so sure about.

An Increase in Poverty in the Suburbs: Are the Suburbs Becoming More Like the Cities?

The New York Times had a piece last week about the increase in suburban poverty since 2000:

The poor population in America’s suburbs — long a symbol of a stable and prosperous American middle class — rose by more than half after 2000, forcing suburban communities across the country to re-evaluate their identities and how they serve their populations.

The increase in the suburbs was 53 percent, compared with 26 percent in cities. The recession accelerated the pace: two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added from 2007 to 2010.

“The growth has been stunning,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, who conducted the analysis of census data. “For the first time, more than half of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas.”

As a result, suburban municipalities — once concerned with policing, putting out fires and repairing roads — are confronting a new set of issues, namely how to help poor residents without the array of social programs that cities have, and how to get those residents to services without public transportation. Many suburbs are facing these challenges with the tightest budgets in years.

“The whole political class is just getting the memo that Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore,” said Edward Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

So why is this happening? I think it’s just because the suburbs are simply getting older. If you think about it, the very concept of the “suburbs” developed in the post-WWII era, part of the baby boom explosion in population that pushed so many people from the urban environments to the then-bucolic suburban enclaves.  But the areas that were developed at that time have started to show their age, with the children and grandchildren of those original suburbanites migrating to newer, larger, posher developments. So some of the older, less fashionable suburban areas are now affordable for people at the lower ends of the income spectrum, which is actually a good thing to the extent that it flies in the face of the typical complaint about the suburbs lacking economic and racial diversity. But it’s a bad thing insofar as most of these suburban areas are ill-equipped to provide the social services needed by the working poor.

Essentially, what I think is happening is that these original suburbs are going through the same transformation that urban areas went through in the 1950s.  The infrastructure is getting older, some of the people living there are getting older, and some of the people who traditionally lived there are choosing to move to newer, sometimes more upscale, environments. But the census isn’t going to have that granular level of detail to show how people are moving from one part of the suburbs to another, so all it’s showing is population growth in the suburbs generally, and population growth in the poorer demographics.

Arguably, then, the suburbs of today are starting to demographically reflect the outer regions of the city (think: the Bronx, or uptown Manhattan) from 50 years ago.  And they’re bringing both the same challenges that those urban areas had (poverty, crime) as well as some of the benefits of both economic and ethnic diversity.

The Grass is Always Greener: Why People Who Live in the Suburbs Want to Live in the City, and People Who Live in the City (Surprisingly) Want to Live in the Suburbs

Greg Hanscom put up an interesting take on on the discrepancy between where people say they want to live (dense cities) and where they actually seem to be ending up living (sprawling suburbs).  He points to polling data that came from the real estate advising firm RCLCO showing that 88% of Millenials and even their Baby Boomer parents express a desire to live in denser and less car-dependent settings, which is in conflict with census data showing population growth in the suburbs and declines in the cities.

His take:

  • Lots of Millenials would LOVE to move to the cities, but to do that they need of them jobs that no one seems to be able to get these days. So they’re camping out at their parents’ place in the suburbs, “watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns and dreaming of big city living.”
  • Although crime is down in the big cities, but not enough to diminish frightening images of the city as violent places.
  • And although young people like to live in the cities, they pack up for the suburbs as soon as they have kids.

Finally, he makes a brilliant point that maybe this is all about something deep in the American psyche that makes us consistently pine for that which we don’t have, almost a “grass is always greener” perspective that affects all of us.  He points out that according to a 2009 Pew poll, 46% of the public “would rather live in a different type of community from the one they’re living in now — a sentiment that is most prevalent among city dwellers.”

It’s a brilliant post, and I think he’s right on all counts.  Without question young people want to live in the cities — why wouldn’t someone who is 25 prefer to live in a place with abundant nightlife opportunities, ethnic diversity, culture, and public transportation that allows you to drink your face off and still get home safely?  And, conversely, it’s also abundantly clear that people tend to gravitate toward the larger living spaces afforded in the suburbs once they start filling up their 600 square foot apartment with a bunch of screaming children.

Moreover, I think there’s something to the “grass is greener” affect.  Most people who live in the city tend to settle down into a torpid state where they take all that great city stuff for granted.  Like me, they stop going out so much, particularly as they get older, and spend more time in their home and surrounding neighborhood.  And then they increasingly realize that, boy, it really sucks to spend 90% of your time in a two-room apartment, so they pine away for the larger, greener pastures of the suburbs.  Then, of course, you have people like me who move to the suburbs for a lot of good reasons, but look around one night at the Cheescake Factory and think that they’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.  Essentially, we all want what we don’t have, particularly if we used to have it.  It must be something deeply wired into our brains to keep us constantly on the move, always looking for something better, that helped us get through the caveman days.  But it really does make it difficult to appreciate what you have.

So I have no problem admitting that I’m one of those people: I moved to the suburbs, but I really do miss living in the city, and I’m certainly happy that I got my 17 years of urban living in before I exiled myself.

I’ll also say this: if you’re reading this, and you live in the city, go do something. Go to the park, or a club, or a great restaurant, or stare at paintings.  That’s why you’re living in the city, why you’re sacrificing all that money and comfort.  So go do it.  Before it’s too late.

In the News: Are Young People Going to Abandon Cities for the Suburbs?

We’ve previously discussed the debate concerning the future of the suburbs: specifically, whether young people are turning toward, or away, from suburban life in favor of a more urban experience.  On the one side, the Brookings Institute put out a white paper positing that traditional “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs was evolving into “bright flight” from the suburbs to the city — young people fleeing the suburbs to become part of the urban core. On the other side, we’ve seen pushback from some analysts pointing to Census data that actually supports the opposite argument, that young people are actually choosing to migrate to the suburbs.

Here’s Joel Kotkin in a piece that he published on his NewGeography site, which which was republished in Forbes, entitled  “Why America’s Young and Restless Will Abandon Cities for Suburbs”:

Some demographers claim that “white flight” from the city is declining, replaced by a “bright flight” to the urban core from the suburbs. “Suburbs lose young whites to cities,” crowed one Associated Press headline last year.

Yet evidence from the last Census show the opposite: a marked acceleration of movement not into cities but toward suburban and exurban locations. The simple, usually inexorable effects of maturation may be one reason for this surprising result. Simply put, when 20-somethings get older, they do things like marry, start businesses, settle down and maybe start having kids.

An analysis of the past decade’s Census data by demographer Wendell Cox shows this. Cox looked at where 25- to 34-year-olds were living in 2000 and compared this to where they were living by 2010, now aged 35 to 44. The results were surprising: In the past 10 years, this cohort’s presence grew 12% in suburban areas while dropping 22.7% in the core cities. Overall, this demographic expanded by roughly 1.8 million in the suburbs while losing 1.3 million in the core cities.


These findings should inform the actions of those who run cities. Cities may still appeal to the “young and restless,” but they can’t hold millennials captive forever. Even relatively successful cities have turned into giant college towns and “post-graduate” havens — temporary way stations before people migrate somewhere else. This process redefines cities from enduring places to temporary resorts.

This is a really interesting debate, so we’ll continue to track it.  I think part of the divide depends on what you mean by “young people.”  The “bright flight” argument, to the extent that it points out the obvious tendency of unmarried, childless people in their 20s to move to cities, seems self-evident.  But the responding point, that those same people start to move to the suburbs in their 30s, seems equally self-evident.  That is, is anything really changing?

Put it this way: you could not have kept me in the suburbs when I was in my 20s if you pulled a gun on me.  For most of the last 20 years, in fact, I lived in cities even though I inexplicably kept getting jobs in the suburbs: I lived in Manhattan when I had a clerkship in Uniondale, Long Island; I lived in San Francisco when I was in graduate school in Palo Alto; and I lived in Manhattan for over 10 years while I taught in Brooklyn (technically, okay, not a suburb) and then started working in the Hudson Valley.

But over time, I not only found myself losing friends to the suburbs, but realizing that the things that were keeping me in the city were things that were becoming less a vital part of my life, and that I could have an easier life (particularly for me, who actually did a reverse commute) if I just gave in and move to the suburbs.

Which means I went through the exact process described by Kotkin: urban in my 20s, then moving to the suburbs as I got older.

To paraphrase an old quote from Winston Churchill: “If you’re not living in the city at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not living in the suburbs at forty you have no brain.”

Does Living in the Suburbs Make You Healthier? Maybe for Some People….

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that suburbanites are actually healthier than people who live in either the city or in rural areas.

For many urban dwellers, the country conjures up images of clean air, fresh food and physical activities. But these days, Americans residing in major cities live longer, healthier lives overall than their country cousins—a reversal from decades past.


To be sure, city dwellers live with more air pollution and violent crime. They also have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and low-birth-weight babies and are more likely to drink excessively. But overall, urbanites tend to rate their own health more highly and are less likely to die prematurely than rural Americans, according to the county rankings report.

In many measures, residents of suburban areas are the best off. They generally rate their own health the highest and have the fewest premature deaths than either their urban or rural counterparts. Suburbanites also have the fewest low-birth-weight babies, homicides and sexually transmitted diseases.

The emphasis is mine, gloriously mine!  How about that?  Live in the city, and you’re more likely to drink excessively (very true, in my experience), and you’re less healthy from all the air pollution.

Move to the suburbs, though and you reduce your chances, according to the article,  having low-weight babies, getting murdered, and getting the pox.  That’s a pretty good tradeoff off for lousy Thai food, amirite???

Not that moving the suburbs has helped me at all, frankly.  That is, I have not gotten a sexually transmitted disease or been murdered or had a low-weight baby, so that’s good.  But it’s not like I’m exercising more than I did when I lived in the city, which is to say that I did virtually no exercise back then and I’ve continued that rigorous campaign now in the suburbs.  The only change is that I haven’t joined a gym yet, so my lack of exercising is free, a nice change from the city, where not-exercising at my local Crunch cost me like $75 a month.  I’ve put that $75 savings into more cigarettes and booze.

But just from reading that article, I feel healthier already….

Who’s Moving to the Suburbs? More African-Americans, That’s Who!

Since I moved to the suburbs and started this blog, I’ve been trying to validate my decision by pointing out all the OTHER people who are ALSO moving to the suburbs.  For example, we’ve seen how Amy Winehouse moved to the suburbs, and then the Crips and the Bloods (that was a big day for us), and then immigrants in general.  We’ve also discussed the debate about whether people in general are still moving out to the suburbs, or whether they’re starting to go the other way.

But today, we have a report on a big “get” for our side: African-Americans:

Kendall Taylor grew up on this city’s tough South Side and is a pastor at Lodebar Church and Ministries in his old neighborhood. But he lives 35 miles away, in Plainfield, Ill.

“I didn’t want my children to grow up in the same environment I did,” says Taylor, 38, who bought a house in Plainfield with his wife Karen, 38, in 2007. They have one son, Jeremiah, who is 15. Taylor’s mom, sisters, nieces and nephews still live in Chicago. The youngsters, he says, “all want to come and live with me” in the quiet, but fast-growing suburb of about 40,000.

Taylor’s decision to live outside Chicago makes him part of a shift tracked by the 2010 Census that surprised many demographers and urban planners: He is among hundreds of thousands of blacks who moved away from cities with long histories as centers of African-American life, including Chicago, Oakland, Washington, New Orleans and Detroit.

(From USA Today) (emphasis added).

That’s right! The cool people, the ones who set the cultural trends for all the white people to follow.  They’re all moving out here, those traditionally lily-white suburbs that everyone in the city makes fun of.  Talk about validation!

This is sooo much better than Amy Winehouse.

Suburbs in the News: Brookings Demographer William H. Frey on the “Great Suburban Demographic Shift”

We’ve written before about the “great debate” regarding whether the great American love affair with the suburbs is ending: whether the historic migration pattern of city-to-suburb has started to reverse (no), whether young people are prefer to live in the city over the suburbs (duh!), and whether it’s environmentally ethical to raise kids in the city (it depends).  A major part of this argument comes from the Brookings Institute, which has analyzed census data to argue that the nature of the suburbs is changing.

With that in mind, here’s a link to an interview with Brookings demographer William H. Frey, who talks about his findings and what he thinks of the new suburbia.  Some of the key points:

  • The demographics of the suburbs are changing: less white, more hispanic and African-American.
  • Accordingly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the suburbs is becoming more like society as a whole.
  • Many of the “original” suburbanites are now seniors, making way for much of this demographic change.
  • With the demographic evolving, we might see systematic changes in the character and makeup of the suburbs.

Lots of interesting stuff. Take a look.