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

Boomers tended to show a preference for suburbs as they approached their 30s. Not so for subsequent generations.

Stone Arch bridge
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.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.