Yes, Virginia, the Millennials’ Shift from Burbs to Downtowns is Real


by James A. Bacon

The debate still rages over the extent to which young Americans, especially members of the Millennial generation, are moving back to the urban core. Data published by Luke Juday on the StatChat blog should settle that question once and for all. The only questions worth pondering is why they are moving, and how many will move back to the burbs.

The chart above shows the proportion of Millennials living at varying distances from downtown Washington, D.C. In 1990, there was a weak tendency for young adults (defined as 22- to 34-year-olds) to live in the urban core but it was not pronounced. By 2012, however, the next generation of post-college young people had shifted markedly to the urban core.

The chart below shows Richmond.


In Norfolk, where the distribution of young military-age people in military facilities is determined largely by the location of military bases, the shift is less evident.


While the change is preference is dramatic, it is important to note that a large number of young people still resided miles from the city center in 2012. It’s not as if the suburbs are emptying of young adults. But even a modest shift in locational preference can drive the demand for new construction.

Juday, a Millenial himself, suggests a couple of reasons for the shift. Millennials have worse job prospects than previous generations at the same age and are saddled with greater student loan debt. As a consequence, they are less likely to take on mortgages for single-family dwellings in the suburbs. They’re also postponing marriage and child-bearing, which diminishes the incentives to move to suburban school jurisdictions with better schools. In keeping with their more modest economic prospects, Millennials place less emphasis on home ownership, automobile ownership and driving; they prefer walkable urban neighborhoods.

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8 responses to “Yes, Virginia, the Millennials’ Shift from Burbs to Downtowns is Real

  1. And a Millennial is more likely to be multi-cultural than baby boomers and that trend is growing.
    And a Millennial is less likely to be in a two parent home so the traditional Boomer family model is very different.
    And the percentage of jobs in the distant Burbs and rural areas has dropped dramatically in recent years. Most Virginia congressional districts do not generate sufficient taxes to come anywhere close to support the current lifestyle and this is in decline.
    So where a millennial want to live ….where there would are no jobs or where they commute two hours each way each day or in the new Burbs?
    That is why investors like Boston Properties and others are investing billions of dollars in high end, high rise rental apartment buildings.
    If one is going fishing or job hunting why not go to where there are fish or jobs?

  2. The economics of it make sense, but looking through history the real anomaly is the post-war boom in the suburbs spurred on by a mix of racism, terrible FHA and highway policy and the damage industry had done to the urban core.

    People love and have always gravitated to cities from Mureybet and Uruk to Memphis and Thebes to Athens and Akkada to Xi’an and Pataliputra to London, Paris and New York City. I make no predictions as to the cultural staying power outter ring suburbs and exurbs have in the United States, but the return to the inner core by people who didn’t grow up with smog, poverty and CIA-enabled crack as part of their reference point for city life is not surprising.

  3. well I guess I don’t see it in terms of Millennials as some distinct and unique generational group.

    I see it instead as the simple economics of the 21st century where it don’t matter where you were born or whether you’re a redneck or a Rhodes Scholar – once you get your education – where are you going to go to get your job?

    it sure as heck ain’t going to be ROVA or most exurbs.. unless you’ve identified a niche occupation for the burbs – which might be education or health care – as the burbs has kids who need educating and geezers who need health care.

    No – it’s not that simple or cut and dried .. but neither is the idea that Millennials are some kind of generational renegades… who have the option of working in the burbs or working in the urban areas.

    You want a job – you go to the city –

    next question…

    • I agree. There’s simply not much opportunity outside of health care and education in the exurbs. Thus, a move to the city.

    • Speaking as one who lived in one city or another until I moved to the D.C. area in late 1984, cities are often fine places to live until one has to make the choice of schools for their children. Most cities have lousy schools. Even middle class parents send their kids to private or religious-based schools. My parents did.

      If and when Millenials have their own children, many will move to locations with good public schools. Ask Arlington and Fairfax Counties. Jim or Sue’s soccer games will consume Millennial parents’ weekends.

  4. LOFL, I agree with you. And more importantly in this case, my grown children agree with you. They can’t understand why their parents’ generation ever left the city. As you say, they just didn’t experience the dysfunctional decades.
    LarryG, my answer to you is also one of my children, whose job is almost entirely on-line-based. He could work from anywhere there’s an internet connection that’s fast enough. He loves the outdoors and even thought about getting a place in the near countryside. He has chosen, however, to rent an inside-the-Beltway location near night-life and the subway — he who does not commute anywhere but works from home.

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