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The March of the Millennial Generation to the Cities is Real

January 23, 2014

City Skyline

cityOriginally posted on the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blog

This past fall, the Washington Post ran a series called “The March of the Millennials” about how this generation is changing Washington D.C. For those of you who have been out of the loop for the last few years, ‘millennials’ or the ‘millennial generation’ is what people are calling those who have reached adulthood since the early 2000s; in other words, who were born since the early 1980s. They are (obviously) young, and—particularly among those who are college graduates—disproportionately likely to be single, or if married, childless.

Many of them are moving to places like Boston or Washington, where, as the Post article put it, “to longtime residents, the city feels different, in some places, almost unrecognizable. Once-dead streets are bustling, even after dark. High-rises are replacing aged structures and overgrown lots. Restaurants pop up overnight, like dandelions. Pedestrians have to look both ways for bicycles.”

Thinking about this, I found myself asking two questions. First, is this just something that’s happening in the outlier cities, like Washington, Boston or San Francisco? And second, what does it really mean for these cities, and what does it suggest for their future? In this post, I’ll take on the first question, and next month I’ll talk about the second.

Being a data wonk, I realized that there’s a pretty straightforward way to tell whether your city is being, as the headline in a Next City piece last spring put it, “overrun by millennials.”

We can look at the number of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2000 and 2012 (for which we use a weird dataset known as the five-year American Community Survey (ACS), about which the less said the better) for a city, look at the same number for the state, and compare:

  • the city’s share of this demographic compared to its total population share; and;
  • what share the city made up of the statewide growth in that demographic between 2000 and 2012.

The results are staggering. The first table shows the numbers for five cities—one well-known millennial magnet, Boston, and four reviving, but still struggling cities.

Percent share of statewide total population (2008-2012 ACS) percent share of statewide college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2008-2012 ACS) percent share of statewide growth in college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2000 to 2008-2012)
Baltimore 10.7% 13.6% 32.5%
Boston 9.4 19.8 59.6
Philadelphia 12.0 17.2 38.5
Pittsburgh 2.4 5.3 9.4
St. Louis 5.3 10.1 22.4

Since these cities have very different shares of statewide population, it may be hard to compare them on the table—even though it’s pretty clear Boston is off the charts. To make this more visible, in the graph I’ve ‘equalized’ the population share, so the relationship between it and the other two data points is clear.

The data make clear that:

  • what’s going on with the millennial generation is not limited to a couple of outliers, and;
  • the change is recent and dramatic.

Look at the next graph, which compares the relative share of total population and 25-34 year old college graduates for the same five cities (1.00 means that the city has the same statewide share of total population as it has of 25-34 year old college graduates, higher than 1.00 means that its share of 25-34 year old college graduates is higher than its total population share).

In 2000, St. Louis and Philadelphia had about their proportionate share of millennial college graduates, and Baltimore actually had much less than its proportionate share. By 2012, this had changed dramatically, particularly in St. Louis, which has become a major draw for millennials. So what we’re seeing is a very recent phenomenon—meaning that, at least in this respect, the millennial generation is fundamentally different from previous generations.

This isn’t happening everywhere, though. Some cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, are not attracting, or holding college-educated millennials. Both have fewer than their share of this demographic, and have lost more than they gained since 2000. The entire state of Michigan lost 25-34 year old college graduates over the decade, and Detroit’s loss accounted for 38 percent of the statewide loss, even though Detroit contains only 7% of the state’s population.

Number of college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2000) Number of college graduates aged 25 to 34 (2008-2012) Change Ratio of college graduates aged 25 to 34 to total population (2000) Ratio of college graduates aged 25 to 34 to total population (2000)
Cleveland 12,535 11,698 – 314 .76 .80
Detroit 15,756 10,392 -5,364 .47 .42

Cleveland can perhaps take some small consolation in the fact that, although it lost members of this demographic, it lost fewer of them than it lost others.

In short, the march of the millennial generation to the cities is real, and is significant. The question is, does it mean something more than downtown lofts, tapas bars, and fitness centers? I’ll speculate on that question next month.

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