by James A. Bacon
How long will the return-to-the-cities movement of the Millennial generation last?
Smart Growthers think that a fundamental lifestyle shift is occurring. Millennials are different: They are the smart-phone generation, the shared-ownership generation. As long as they can readily access a car when they need one through Zipcar or a peer-sharing service, they’re happy to walk, bike or ride mass transit most of the time. Skeptics contend that Millennials are the same as previous generations. As soon as they marry and have kids, they’ll start moving to single-family houses in the ‘burbs and buy cars just like everybody else.
Cheryl Russell, editor of the American Consumers Newsletter, adds a perspective I haven’t seen before. She argues that the hardships created by Great Recession and its aftermath have delayed marriage and reduced childbearing among Millennials. As a consequence, Millennials are inclined to live in urban core jurisdictions longer than they would have otherwise. Writes she:
The Great Recession idled millions of millennials, causing them to postpone marriage and childbearing. Without the nuclear family motive for moving to the suburbs, young adults are staying put in urban centers and boosting city populations. Between 2010 and 2012, the nation’s largest cities (with populations of 50,000 or more) grew 2.1 percent, nearly double the 1.1 percent growth everywhere else. Cities may be growing not so much because they are attracting young adults, but because they are no longer losing young families to the suburbs.
Russell cites the following data:
- The median age at first marriage is at a record high (29 for men; 27 for women).
- The fertility rate is at a record low (62.7 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44).
- The number of nuclear families (married couples with children under age 18) headed by young adults fell by more than 1 million between 2007 and 2013. Nuclear families now account for only 24 percent of households headed by people under age 35.
What happens if the economy picks up and traditional marriage and child-bearing patterns reassert themselves? Will the Millennials then move to the burbs? There’s no way to know for sure but Russell is skeptical.
The biggest problem is student loan debt, shifting the age of first-time home buying from the early to the late thirties. Only 37 percent of householders under age 35 are homeowners, the lowest rate on record for the age group. By the time they can afford to buy a home, younger generations will be accustomed to city life and may not be willing to trade urban amenities for suburban sprawl.