The modern day forums for which people are able to express themselves and ‘stay connected’ include the much talked about websites Facebook, MySpace, Youtube, among many others. It seems like not a day goes by where there is not another article discussing the revolutionary merits these websites have on changing the socio-cultural landscape.
Another hot topic that has been getting an abundance of press coverage lately is that of the so-called ‘Millennial Generation’ – the primary users of these ‘social-networking’ tools. Much of the information reported about the Millennials tends to focus on profiling this generation, born between approximately 1980 and 2003, and how to manage their supposedly fickle and entitled dispositions in the workplace. Yet there has not been much discussion regarding the effect that this generation is going to have on the future of our cities.
Of utmost importance to the Millennials and their sense of identity are the places in which they reside and have traveled to. In every MySpace and Facebook profile, photos abound showing the user in a plethora of different environments. Recently a viral video called ‘Where the hell is Matt?’ has been making the rounds on the internet. In the video, the young man Matt is shown dancing a jig in every corner of the globe with locals joining him wherever he happens to be. He covers enough ground to make even the most well-traveled Millennials envious. The message of the video is clear: that we are all united on this earth and can connect with each other through the universal languages of bad dancing and the internet. The final cut of the video, edited in a manner which shows each location for only a few fleeting seconds, causes one to wonder if the notion of place is of any value in contemporary society. At the end of ‘Where the hell is Matt?’ we are left with the feeling that the means which enabled Matt to produce and distribute the video are more relevant than the actual places he visited.
The privilege of mobility, coupled with ‘experiencing’ a multitude of locales, both exotic and domestic, has contributed to Millennials having a complex frame of reference regarding civic milieu. Encouraged by their parents, Millennials will oftentimes attend college in cities far from their home – not to mention the obligatory semester studying abroad and even the possibility of attending graduate school in yet another place. Others choose to join organizations like the Peace Corps that enables them to participate in community service and live somewhere off the beaten path simultaneously.
Due to the ease of movement and the blasé attitude towards staying put, the city becomes a commodity – another item to be consumed and talked about fashionably at cocktail parties. Whereas migration patterns have traditionally been based on economic opportunity, the ability to choose one’s city based on lifestyle is the equivalent of making a selection from a platter of pastries.
There is even a growing discourse regarding this concept. Earlier this year, a book titled ‘Who’s Your City?’ by the urban theorist Richard Florida came out touting itself as a guide for choosing which city to live in. Though Florida does factor in considerations like what cities are good for certain industries, the premise still weighs heavily on the idea of the city as a fashionable piece of merchandise for consumption.
The disjointed and schizophrenic city hopping would lead most to believe that Millennials, perennially insatiable, would be deep in a perpetual state of malaise due to frayed social connections. On the contrary, it is the new geography of communication technology, easy access to email, and the aforementioned social networking websites that has allowed them to stay in contact with their peers no matter where they happen to be.
The transient nature of Millennials begs the question of where they will ultimately end up settling. With older Millennials now approaching their late 20s, settling down, getting married and starting a family is becoming more of a consideration. Despite all the hype of a return to the inner city, the jury is still out on whether the majority of Millennials will choose to raise families in a part of town where there is a dearth of amenities for children. Though young and single Millennials may have momentary love affairs with the much sought after superstar cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston, the restrictive cost of living coupled with questions of safety and quality of public schools will weigh heavily on their decision.
Coincidentally, it is the climate of connectivity that will allow Millennials to keep in touch with aspects of city life, even as they move back to suburbs to raise families. Though the desire for a larger living space, a backyard and a clean neighborhood may become more important than being in close proximity to the newest nightclubs and celebrity chef owned restaurants, an interest in civic engagement will most likely not wane.
One thing Millennials excel at compared to other generations is their ability to distill vast quantities of information – simply because they have been exposed to much more of it. This in turn has made them much more open to diversity – both in terms of culture and modes of thought. The implication here is that if they are to move back to the suburbs, the concept of a ‘suburb’ to them is no longer that of a homogenous place where life is ultimately dull and boring. Some prime examples of this new concept of the suburb can be found on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula with the renaissance of towns like Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Redwood City, where tech companies, both large and small, are in close proximity to many of their employee’s homes. Each of these towns has a thriving downtown, an assortment of ethnic restaurants, and even independent coffee shops and art house movie theaters.
What exactly does this mean for the future of the big cities? Big cities are definitely not going away – even as Millennials begin leaving to start families. Big cities may no longer have the edge up over suburbs when it comes to diversity, access to information and social cohesion, but the physical form of older cities, including density and architecture, will become a living museum to times before the age of the internet when physical proximity was necessary for commerce and personal interaction. In the future, Millennials will most likely reflect positively on the time when they lived in Manhattan in their 20s and paid $1800 a month for that cramped studio apartment they found on Craigslist. By that time, chances are they may even be encouraging their own children to ‘go out and discover the world’ just like their Baby Boomer parents did for them.