Back in the 1950s and 60s when Baby Boomers were young, places like Los Angeles led the nation’s explosive growth in suburban living that has defined the American Dream ever since. As Kevin Roderick observed, the San Fernando Valley became, by extension, “America’s suburb” – a model which would be repeated in virtually every community across the country.
These suburbs – perfectly suited to the sun-washed car culture of Southern California – have remained the ideal for most Americans. And they remain so for the children of Boomer and Generation X parents, Millennials,(born 1982-2003), who express the same strong interest in raising their families in suburban settings.
According to the most recent generational survey research, done for Washington-based think tank, NDN, by Frank N. Magid Associates, 43 percent of Millennials describe suburbs as their “ideal place to live,” compared to just 31 percent of older generations. In the same survey, a majority of older generations (56%) expressed a preference for either small town or rural living. This may reflect the roots of many older Americans, who are more likely to have grown up outside of a major metropolis, or it may indicate a desire of older people for a presumably simpler lifestyle.
By contrast, these locations were cited by only 34 percent of Millennials as their
preferred place to live. A majority (54%) of Millennials live in suburban America and most of those who do express a preference for raising their own families in similar settings. Even though big cities are often thought of as the place where young people prefer to live and work, only 17 percent of Millennials say they want to live in one, less than a third of those expressing a preference for suburban living. Nor are they particularly anxious to spend their lives as renters in dense, urban locations. A full 64 percent of Millennials surveyed, said it was “very important” to have an opportunity to own their own home. Twenty percent of adult Millennials named owning a home as one of their most important priorities in life, right behind being a good parent and having a successful marriage.
This suggests that some of the greatest opportunities in housing will be in those metropolitan areas that can provide the same amenities of suburban life that Los Angeles did sixty years ago. In this Millennials are just like their parents who moved to the suburbs in order to buy their own home, with a front and back yard, however small, in a safe neighborhood with good schools.
Given the fact that nearly four in five Millennials express a desire to have children, cities that wish to attract Millennials for the long-term will have to offer these same benefits. These Millennial metropolises also will need to be built with the active participation of their citizens, using the most modern communication technologies, to create a community that reflects this generation’s community-oriented values and beliefs. Metropolises that wish to attract Millennials, will also need to include them in their governing institutions. Such cities will have a leg up on those run by closed, good old boy networks that don’t reflect the tolerance and transparency Millennials believe in.
The passion of Millennials for social networking and smart phones reflects their need to stay in touch with their wide circle of friends every moment of the day and night. In fact, 83 percent of this generation say that they go to sleep with their cell phone. This group-oriented behavior is reflected in the efforts of Millennials to find win-win solutions to any problem and their strong desire to strengthen civic institutions. Seventy percent of college age Millennials have performed some sort of community service and virtually every member of the generation (94%) considers volunteer service as an effective way to deal with challenges in their local community.
The other key characteristic of the Millenial metropolis will be how it carves out a safe place for children. The Boomer parents of Millennials took intense interest in every aspect of their children’s lives, earning them the sobriquet “helicopter parents” because of their constant hovering. Now the Generation X “stealth fighter parents” of younger Millennials are turning the Boomer desire to hover and talk into a push for action and better bottom line results.
This can already be seen in cities like Los Angeles where a parent revolution is successfully challenging the entrenched interests in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
The idea began with a website, www.parentrevolution.org, that offered a bargain to parents willing to participate in a grass roots effort to improve individual schools. The organizers, led by Ben Austin, a long time advocate on behalf of Los Angeles’s kids, promised that if half of the parents in a school attendance district signed an online petition indicating their willingness to participate in improving their local school, they would “give you a great school for your child to attend.”
This process has worked both in working class areas like East Los Angeles’ Garfield High School and the Mark Twain Middle School in affluent West LA. With the backing of the parents, Austin went to the Los Angeles school district and demanded that they either put the management of the school “out to bid,” or his organization would be forced to respond to the parent’s demands by starting a charter school in competition with the LAUSD school. Since each child has seven thousand dollars of potential state funding in their back pack, a newly enlightened LAUSD agreed to these demands. When 3000 parents showed up to demonstrate their support of the concept, the school district voted 6-1 to adopt a policy mandating competitive bids eventually be issued for the management of all 250 “demonstrably failing schools” as defined by federal education law.
The key to building the Millenial metropolis will be to accommodate such changes. Places like Dallas, Houston, Austin, or Raleigh-Durham that have survived the Great Recession reasonably well now are focusing on producing open, accessible communities with good schools and safe streets. These communities appear best positioned to take advantage of the next bloom of urban growth. Of course the ability to provide America’s next great generation with good jobs and a growing economy will also be required if any metropolis wants to attract Millennials. But with the right leadership and a sustained effort to focus on the basics of family living, almost any city has the opportunity to become a leader in the rebirth of America’s Millennial Era metropolises.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.