Millennials get all the credit for embracing city living. But the trend started with Generation X

Stone Arch bridge
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Gen-Xers flocked to the city in their early twenties, too, but as they approached their mid-20s and 30s, weren’t as likely to leave as were the boomers in the 1990s.

Yeah, yeah, millennials like cities. You don’t have to venture too far into Uptown, Northeast or the North Loop in Minneapolis to see how members of that generation, now in their twenties and thirties, have shaped the urban landscape, with high-rise apartment buildings, third-wave coffee shops and breweries built to accommodate them.

By-and-large, millennials have a significant preference for urban living and the amenities, like shopping, culture and recreation, that come with it, says a new study that explores migration patterns.

But in some cities, the trend of people in their mid-20s through mid-30s being less likely to move out to the suburbs started in the ’90s, not the 2000s, and with a different generation: Generation X.

Moving in, not out

Yongsung Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech and an author of the study, says he wanted to study different generations’ migration patterns because there’s a big question looming about millennials: is their presence in cities transitory or more permanent? Do millennials like city life like all young people like city life, or is there something stickier about their affinity for urban places?

The peer-reviewed study, “Urban Revival by Millennials? Intra-Urban Net Migration Patterns of Young Adults, 1980-2010,” will be published in an upcoming volume of the Journal of Regional Science.

Previous studies have looked at the change in populations of young people in urban and suburban areas. This one, its authors say, is the first to look at this level of detail at net migration, which captures the people who are actually moving — not just whether there are more or fewer people of a certain age — to give a more accurate look at migration patterns.

By using Census tract-level data on the net migration patterns of people who were ages 20 through 24, 25 through 34, 35 through 44 and 45 through 64 in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, the researchers can see the difference in the generations’ geographic choices at different points of their young adulthood (and later lives).

An attraction to city life for young people is nothing new.

The researchers found that young baby boomers, who were in their late teens and 20s in the 1980s, tended to move out into the city in the 1980s. At the same time, boomers in their late 20s and early 30s were already showing a preference for suburban life. By the ’90s, the younger boomers, too, were gravitating toward the suburbs more often than the urban core much like their older counterparts in their generation.

At the time, boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were the largest generation, and their penchant for single-family homes in the suburbs shaped development out into the outer ring suburbs and exurbs.

Gen-Xers were different. They flocked to the city in their early twenties, too, but as they approached their mid-20s and 30s, weren’t as likely to leave as were the boomers.

More opportunities

For Matty Lang, growing up in Faribault in the 1980s and ’90s, taking a trip to the city meant Burnsville, and later, the Mall of America.

But as he got older, he was looking for something bigger. And when it came time to apply for colleges, he only applied to the University of Minnesota.

“I knew that I wanted to go to a school that was in a big city, a real city,” Lang said. “There’s more people, there’s more culture, there’s more everything, so that means there was more opportunity for me to get involved.”

A year in Paris at the end of college solidified his love of urban places, where he found people interacted more in the streets and on transit.

“You get those advantages of all the different cultures, types of people, different backgrounds, different lived experiences coming together and interacting,” he said.

Landing back in Minneapolis was hard in some ways. It wasn’t Paris.

“I landed at the airport and I had to be driven away from there through Bloomington and through suburbia and it was really depressing,” he said. But if he was going to stay in Minnesota, it was going to be in the city, he said.

Now 43, Lang lives in Marcy-Holmes and commutes the short distance to his job at the University of Minnesota by walking, bike, transit or scooter.

As for his appreciation of the amenities Minneapolis affords, he said he doesn’t feel like an anomaly among people his age.

“I don’t feel super special at all, but I am a younger Gen-Xer,” he said.

Driving factors

There’s a couple theories about why young people have been gravitating toward urban centers — and staying put there — in recent decades, Lee said. People who are highly-educated, singles, and couples without kids or without school-age kids are more likely to live in cities.

The share of people who have college degrees and are single has been increasing since the ’60s or ’70s. People are delaying having kids, having fewer kids and buying homes later.

So one theory is that there are social demographics behind the trends.

“They’re different. Today’s young adults — they’re different,” Lee said, to sum up the hypothesis.

Another theory is that cities are more attractive today than they were then.

“Cities suffered crime rates and poor maintenance of public housing and streets were not well-maintained. These places were not as attractive as today,” Lee said.

It’s also possible those two theories are working together to produce an increasing  preference for urban life among young adults.

The research suggests that because urban amenities are more important to them, millennials will stay in cities longer than adults of previous generations, but how long, it can’t tell.

“How much longer and how many millennials among them will stay in cities, we still need to wait and see,” Lee said.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/14/2019 - 11:32 am.

    I’d subscribe to the “wait and see” approach. A suburbanite for several decades, this is my first experience at living in a “big” city (New Yorkers, or Parisians, would scoff at the notion of Minneapolis as a big city). I’d argue that at least some of the conclusions many researchers use as a basis for their arguments are grounded in studies that are not sufficiently granular. They’re generalizing from samples that are too small.

    My neighborhood in far north Minneapolis is, literally, a retail desert. The entire neighborhood is zoned R-1, and among the 1,500 or so lots in the neighborhood, there’s a single 4-unit apartment building, and one business (a former print shop, it is now one of the most depressing day care facilities I’ve ever seen – an oblong concrete block structure with an asphalt-covered outside play area surrounded by chain link fence, across from an industrial area). Every other lot is low-to-mid-level single-family detached housing. Economically, the primary advantage of the neighborhood, and it’s a significant one, is the prevalence of relatively (the modifier is important) affordable single-family housing.

    It’s literally the most suburban area I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived in suburbs most of my life. Getting literally anything outside the home requires either driving or an Amazon delivery. The single amenity the neighborhood possesses is one more typically associated with suburbs, not cities, and that’s green space. Shingle Creek meanders west-to-east through the neighborhood, and its accompanying greenway and stormwater detention ponds do a surprisingly good job of softening the psychological edges of what would otherwise be a fairly grim, industrial-feeling area.

  2. Submitted by Adam Miller on 06/14/2019 - 11:48 am.

    Alternate theory: driving a car when everyone else is trying to drive to the same place is unpleasant and can be avoided if you can live where you don’t have to drive to and from work.

  3. Submitted by lisa miller on 06/14/2019 - 01:09 pm.

    Oh please, the egos. I grew up in Minneapolis and can remember when all those now wanting to live in the city suburbanites looked down on us and I’m no xer or millennial. It goes in cycles and also as people go through their own phases, they move here and there. I used to think the suburbs were a great horror only to learn that not necessarily so. There are parts of Minneapolis that are more bougi and uppity than any suburb. In fact as more people are pushed out due to price, the suburbs or some of them have taken on more of a city approach The Twin Cities, unfortunately, is not what many would consider a well planned layout. Add to it, the many mini malls, and lack of historical buildings. Also, there are neighborhoods that are glossed over–namely north Mpls and efforts to reduce crime and increase liveability. I agree with another writer above, this is just a small sample.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2019 - 08:40 am.

    I don’t see anywhere how large the sample size was, and the article itself is behind a pay wall so we can’t really look at it’s methodology. I find it a little odd that the authors claim to be doing something no one else has done however given the fact that they’re using the same census data everyone else is using? And the results themselves don’t seem to be providing very much additional detail, I’m not learning anything I didn’t already know here. If you’re a baby boomer who’s lived in a first ring suburb you’re whole life like myself, you saw the halt and partial reversal of urban depopulation that began in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    In recent years we’ve seen seniors and boomers beginning to move into the cities.

    I would like to know which cities the researchers sampled, and what kind of controls they used to distinguish them. You probably can’t compare Detroit, New York, Seattle, Duluth, and the Twin Cities for instance and find the same demographic patterns. There are huge differences between different cities in terms of amenities, transit, affluence, and even crime rates and safety.

    I like Ray’s observation regarding the suburbanization of city neighborhoods, this was a result of the auto-centricity that emerged in the 50’s. When we tore up 500 miles of street car lines it changed the character of city neighborhoods dramatically… neighborhoods like Ray’s used to have more available retail, usually clustered around street car intersections and stops. You can still see vestiges of that here and there if you know what to look for.

    If we get our transit act together in the Twin Cities Metro I think you’ll depopulation of the exo-burbs for sure.

    Anyways when we talk about all this “credit” being handed out to millennials, we might want to ask who exactly are the creditors? I wonder if millennials themselves (as they are wont to do perhaps) are the ones giving themselves all the credit? Folks like myself who are little older and lived around here for twice as many years didn’t necessarily see the earth shaking transformation, although we note all the new apartments and improved character of the cities.

  5. Submitted by John Webster on 06/17/2019 - 02:02 pm.

    Younger adults are living in urban areas at higher percentages for one reason only: many of them are delaying having children or don’t plan to ever have them. Minneapolis is no doubt experiencing a major building boom in high density housing which appeals almost entirely to two groups: older empty-nesters and young professionals without kids. Younger adults will stay in Minneapolis – at the latest – until their oldest child reaches kindergarten age, at which point they will move to a suburb that has better quality, safer public schools. Only quite affluent parents who can afford private schools remain in the city – very few exceptions to this rule.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/19/2019 - 09:09 am.

      Count me as one of the exceptions. Also my wife. We were very happy with the results our unionized, inner-city schools delivered for our children, so we passed on several chances to move back out to the suburbs.

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