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Millennials seem to be the generation that nobody can pin down. Viewpoints conflict regarding the size and scope of this youthful population; some define it as those born after 1982 and ending sometime in the early 2000s, while others push the start date back into the late 1970s. Depending on its genesis, of course, actual population numbers fluctuate (between 75 and 90 million). Regardless, millennials are the largest generation the United States has ever seen.
Then, there are the habits and desires of this gargantuan age group. It’s well-documented that aside from being more numerous, millennials are more racially diverse than baby boomers, and also exhibit different social habits and desires—thanks, internet—in terms of spending, owning property, and determining where to live.
Many articles pontificate on the rise of millennial populations in cities and what the continuous influx might mean for native city populations. In recent years, however, it appears that millennials are actually taking flight from cities back into outer neighborhoods and even suburban settings. Findings suggest that millennial populations in cities aren’t necessarily static, and there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the location and desires of the population.
Leanne Lachman, president of independent real estate firm Lachman Associates, co-authored a report published by the Urban Land Institute entitled “Gen-Y and Housing.” The report explains that though millennials do reside in cities, many are located in outer neighborhoods and boroughs rather than the downtown areas these urban centers are normally associated with.
“The vast majority of Gen-Yers grew up in the suburbs and had very happy childhoods,” Lachman tells BTRtoday. “If you ask millennials whether they think of themselves as city people, suburban people, or small town people, 37 percent say city, 36 percent suburbs, and 26 percent small town and rural.”
Her findings suggest that most millennials would actually like to move back to the suburbs, contrary to what many believed just a few years ago. Lachman believes there’s a strong sense of connection to family, which is vastly different than baby boomers who were looking to get out.
“Wherever friends and families are, that’s where they want to be,” Lachman says.
Just 13 percent of millennials live in downtown areas, generally considered to be the most desirable location in a given city, and regularly the most expensive. There isn’t much debate as to whether cost of living is affecting people in major metropoles—from 2009 to 2014, the cost of living in New York City increased by more than 20 percent. Rents in San Francisco have skyrocketed so starkly that many within the city consider it a housing crisis.
Lachman doesn’t deny that cost is a relevant factor in millennials shifting toward outer boroughs, but she points to the idea that people are increasingly comfortable living with more roommates and willing to make living compromises.
“There are tradeoffs,” Lachman says. “In New York you don’t need to have a car, so you don’t pay car insurance. You have functioning public transit, and there are lots of things to do that aren’t expensive.”
New York, Lachman explains, is identified as a “primary magnet downtown,” or one of the most appealing city centers in the country. There are five others—Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco—all of which land within the top 10 when it comes to cost of living in North America. According to Lachman, people will always flock to these cities because of how attractive they are, no matter the price or concessions required to make it work.
The idea of living in a city with such an established identity isn’t for every millennial though, which explains a rise in the populations of slightly smaller cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, and Austin. These are secondary magnet downtowns, which don’t have the same type of draw as primaries, but consist of strong urban centers.
Further down the line are shifts to even more peripheral cities like Milwaukee. Though it’s not commonly regarded in the same league as urban giants like New York, the Wisconsin city has experienced a modest but steady population growth, with optimism that the growth will continue.
“The thing that drew me is that the story of Milwaukee is really unfinished,” Milwaukee resident Angela Damiani tells BTRtoday. “I can feel the impact that I have almost immediately because of the size and scale.”
Damiani is a member of NEWaukee, a social architecture firm started in 2009 that organizes events and programs to connect people within the city of Milwaukee. The organization aims to engage Milwaukeeans to create the culture and change they want to see in their city. She says the impact she and others can have on the environment is a major attraction.
“Even if I lived 90 minutes south in Chicago, there’s no way I’d be able to have a regular audience with Rahm Emmanuel the way that I can with our mayor Tom Barrett here,” Damiani says. “That’s a really unique opportunity if you want to create change, or create anything.”
Perhaps in years to come, more millennials will flock to smaller cities where their influence will be greater and their voices will ring louder. It’s certainly something that can’t be overlooked in a generation that makes up roughly a quarter of the population.
“There are so many millennials that if just a few of them do anything, it’s a significant trend,” Lachman says. “There will be all kinds of experimentation, and it can be a very small percentage of the total, but it’s still a meaningful number.”
The important thing to remember is there will always be people moving in and out of all cities, regardless of age. The generation following millennials, sometimes referred to as “Gen-Next,” is just as large, so a continuous flow into magnetic downtowns, as well as outward into surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs, can be expected.
“Some of the people that identify as suburban and are now living in cities will probably migrate to the suburbs,” Lachman explains. “But there will be others who will decide it’s too important to stay in a dynamic, global city. You can’t say that everybody’s going to do anything.”