Will Millennials Stay in the City?

9.18.2012 | Network member Rolf Pendall has cities on his mind. Over at Atlantic Cities, he worries aloud about their future. We’ve heard for some time now that Millennials are flocking to cities, and many see cities’ futures as hinging on this generation. But as Pendall wonders, will they stay?

I’d read the news coverage of this trend toward cities, but until I moved just recently from the rather geriatric downtown “gold coast” to Chicago’s South Loop, I didn’t realize the extent of this transformation. We used to joke about our high-rise as being a NORC– a naturally occurring retirement community. The neighborhood was home to a lot of retired empty nesters, aging in place. You had to be careful on the street or the old men would run you over on those scooters you see advertised on 60 Minutes.

The move to the South Loop, though, was an eye-opener. A mere 15 years ago, the area was a barren post-industrial swathe across from Soldier Field, bounded by railroad tracks and poverty. Now? Let’s just say the geriatric scooters have been replaced by  strollers and big dogs. Young parents in their early 30s are starting families here, anchoring the neighborhood restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons, and grocery stores.  We spied another fellow silver-haired on our rooftop deck the other night, but I think we scared him off with our rush to bond.

In The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, Alan Ehrenhalt suggests that Millennials and GenXers before them are sparking a “great inversion” in metro areas. As I wrote of his book a few months ago at Transitions to Adulthood, their preferences for more walkable living, cafe culture, and shop keepers who recognize them, coupled with the gravitational pull of cities like Seattle and San Francisco, Austin, and Portland where jobs in the new economy are clustering, means that cities are becoming havens for privileged youth with advanced degrees and disposable income. Their lifestyles and disposable income are, in turn, driving lower-income families out.

The main point of The Great Inversion, writes “City Journal” reviewer Howard Husock,

“is straightforward but not uncontroversial: that a large group of “millennial young adults” prefer urban over suburban, and especially exurban, living—and that, as a result, they will push lower-income households, including new immigrants, to settle outside core cities. This shift will re-create, to some extent, the pattern of early twentieth-century Vienna and Paris. In other words, the phrase “inner city,” long a synonym (and euphemism) for American social problems, will go the way of the Berlin Wall.”


Only time will tell whether this inversion will come to full fruition. While there are plenty of GenX parents and strollers at the farmer’s markets and coffee houses of the city, the real test will come when those tots are old enough to start school. Will their parents stay and work with other families to improve the education for their children, or will they decamp in their Tahoe to the suburbs–and recalibrate the look and feel of the burbs? As the Christian Science Monitor noted in its review of The Great Inversion, “He [Ehrenhalt] might want to make note of the fact that McDonald’s and Walmart“–those totems of suburban living– ”announced record profits in 2010 and GM did the same in 2011.”

Yet a forthcoming book by Linn Posey that I’ve had the pleasure of editing suggests a concerted effort on the part of city planners, long-time residents, and new middle and upper-middle-class parents to transform urban schools.  As Varady and Raffel argue in Selling Cities, “The vitality of American cities depends in part on their ability to retain and attract the middle-class.”

As Posey writes:

Middle- and upper-middle-class parents themselves are also playing a central role in urban revitalization and school change efforts. A rising number of predominantly white, middle-class parent groups have formed in the last ten years with the goal of increasing the enrollment of neighborhood parents in their local schools and supporting these schools through volunteerism and financial contributions.

In Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a growing interest on the part of white middle-class parents in city public schools.  Not only are many of these parents enrolling their children in predominantly low-income or economically mixed schools that have a majority of students of color, but they are sharing their work with others, forming what one Bay Area newspaper article described as a “grassroots movement.”

Pendall, in the Atlantic Cities blog, thinks they might just stay.

Rather than following their Boomer parents’ paths right back to the suburbs after a stint in the city, this generation might stay put, he thinks.

Millennials now living in cities like New York, Washington, Boston, and Chicago have started putting down roots in urban neighborhoods. They have generated new demands for local government and businesses so that cities are becoming places where families stay by choice and not just by necessity. Schools are getting better in many cities, and in practically every city, crime has declined.

As well, many young families will continue to live in cities out of necessity. Many more young mothers now than in the 1970s are unmarried, increasing their economic insecurity and leading them to rely more than middle- and upper-income families on affordable rental housing, networks of friends and kin, and convenient bus transit.”

And lest we forget, this is the most diverse generation in the country’s history. This, too, may bode well for cities. As Pendall notes, “Because of their diversity and the timing of their coming of age, Millennials may affect tomorrow’s cities as much as Baby Boomers have shaped today’s suburbia.”

If the South Loop of Chicago is any indication, I think he might be right.



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