Millennial Boomtowns: Where The Generation Is Clustering (It's Not Downtown)

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Much has been written about the supposed preference of millennials to live in hip urban settings where cars are not necessary. Surveys of best cities for millennials invariably feature places like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston, cities that often are also favorites of the authors.

Yet there has been precious little support for such assertions. I asked demographer Wendell Cox to do a precise, up-to-date analysis of where this huge generation born between 1983 and 2003 actually resides. Using Census American Community Survey data, Cox has drawn an intriguing picture of millennial America, one that is often at odds with the conventional wisdom of many of their elders.

The Hidden Millennials

We focused on individuals aged 20 to 29, which represents most of the millennial generation that is finishing post-secondary education and getting established in the workforce. Much of the writing about millennials focuses on their impact on downtowns and urban cores. And to be sure, the numbers of millennials living in urban cores has grown, as downtowns and inner-city neighborhoods have gentrified, particularly in cities such as Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Overall, from 2010 to 2013, the population of 20- to 29-year-olds in core counties (which in most cases are identical to the core city of the metropolitan area) rose by 407,400, or 3.2%.

However, that must be put in the context of the overall increase nationwide of that age group in that time span: 4%. Despite the growth in raw numbers of 20- to 29-year-olds living in core counties, the share of the age group living in these areas actually declined slightly, by 0.78%, compared to 2010. Meanwhile, the share of the age group living in the less dense portions of metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas  increased. Overall roughly 30% of all millennials live in core counties, which means 70% live somewhere else. In the last three years, the number of millennials outside core counties increased by 1.28 million. In 2010, the functional urban cores, characterized by higher density and higher reliance on transit, were home to 19% of the 20-29s in major metropolitan areas, down from 20% in 2000.

In contrast to the constantly reported on urban hipsters, the vast majority of this generation, who get precious little attention from the media or marketing gurus, might be best described as “hidden millennials.” We have to assume some of these young people are still living, primarily in suburbia, with their parents; a recent Pew study put the percentage of people 18 to 31 living at home at 36%, up from 32% before the recession, as well as the 34% level registered in 2009.

This constitutes a population of over 20 million and not all are hopeless slackers — the vast majority have at least some college education. But they are also disproportionately unemployed or out of the workforce, and, living in their parents’ homes, they are pretty much ignored by everyone except perhaps their friends and relatives. Other millennials may well be living in suburban apartments, which tend to be somewhat less expensive, and others, perhaps the oldest of the group, have begun to “launch” starting families and buying houses, which would tend to put them in the suburbs and smaller cities as well.

Millennial Boomtowns

Equally surprising are those cities that have seen the largest increases in their millennial population. It is dogma among greens, urban pundits, planners and developers that the under 30 crowd doesn’t like what Grist called “sprawling car dependent cities.” Too bad no one told most millennials. For the most part, looking at America’s largest metro areas (the 52 metropolitan statistical areas with populations over a million) the fastest growth in millennial populations tend to be in the Sun Belt and Intermountain West. Leading the way is, San Antonio, Texas, where the 20 to 29 population grew 9.2% from 2010-13, an increase of 28,600.

Right behind it, also in the Sun Belt, are Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. (8.3%); Orlando, Fla. (8.1%); and Miami (7.7%).

Surprisingly Detroit, long considered a demographic basket case, comes in it at No. 5 in our study, with an impressive 6.8% increase. Given the implosion in the population in the city of Detroit, this growth is likely to have taken place almost entirely in the region’s suburbs, which have done far better both economically and demographically than the core.

The Hipster Capitals Lag

For the most part the “capitals of cool” allegedly so irresistible to millennials rank further down the list. The only two arguable hipster magnets to make the top ten were the Denver metro area (seventh) and  Seattle (ninth). The New York metro area ranks 39th with a 3.2% increase, lagging the national expansion in this age group of 4%. The San Francisco-Oakland region, despite the tech boom, places 37th, while the Portland area, renowned as a place where millennials supposedly “go to retire,” ranks 44th. The Chicago metro area’s 20-29 population was essentially unchanged, putting it 49th on our list.

One reason may be that core urban areas are not experiencing the surge in millennials widely asserted. Indeed the millennial populations of the five core counties (or boroughs) of New York grew only 2%, half the national rate of increase and below that of the metro area as a whole.

The same pattern can be seen in the cores of such attractive hipster magnets as San Francisco and Boston, both of which have seen negligible growth among millennials. It appears these areas always attract young people, but also lose them over time. Even more shocking, the 20-29 populations have actually declined since 2010 in the core areas of such much celebrated youth magnets as Chicago (-0.6%) and Portland(-2.5%). Besides Seattle and Denver, the only hip core city showing expanding appeal to millennials is the anomaly of resurgent New Orleans, where the ranks of 20-29 old has grown over 5% since 2010.

The Future of Millennial America

What emerges from this survey is a  picture of a millennial America that does not much mirror the one suggested in most media and pundit accounts. The metro areas with the highest percentages of millennials tend, for the most part, to be not dense big cities but either college towns — Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio, for example — or Sun Belt cities. Virginia Beach leads the pack, with 17% of its population aged 20 to 29, compared to 14% nationwide.

But overall  the towns with the biggest share of millennials today are also those growing this population the fastest:  Southern or Intermountain West cities. One big contributing factor is their large Hispanic communities, which for the last three decades have had a far higher birthrate than whites. Latinos constitute 20% of all millennials. This may help explain the large presence of millennials in places like Orlando, Riverside-San Bernardino, and Los Angeles. Other factors may be places where there tend to be high numbers of children, such as Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City.

What these results suggest is that marketers, homebuilders and politicians seeking to target the increasingly important millennial population need to look beyond urban cores. The vast majority of millennials do not live in dense inner city neighborhoods — in fact less than 12% of the nation’s 20-29s did in 2010. Rather than white hipsters, many millennials are working class and minority;  in 2012, Hispanics and African-Americans represented 34% of the 20-29 population. Presumably many of them are more concerned with making a living than looking out for “fair trade” coffee or urban authenticity.

Like most of America, the millennials are far more suburban, more dispersed and less privileged than what one sees on shows such as “Girls” or read about in accounts in theNew York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Reality is often more complex, and less immediately compelling, than the preferred media narrative. But understanding the actual geography of this generation may provide a first step to gaining wisdom how to approach and understand this critically important generation.

20-29 Population Change: Major Metropolitan Areas: 2010-2013
Rank Major Metropolitan Area (MMSA) 2010 2013 Change
1 San Antonio, TX         311        340 9.2%
2 Riverside-San Bernardino, CA         605        655 8.3%
3 Orlando, FL         322        348 8.1%
4 Miami, FL         716        771 7.7%
5 Detroit,  MI         506        541 6.8%
6 Houston, TX         856        909 6.2%
7 Denver, CO         357        378 6.0%
8 Charlotte, NC-SC         288        304 5.8%
9 Seattle, WA         499        528 5.7%
10 Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC         274        290 5.6%
11 Buffalo, NY         153        162 5.4%
12 Jacksonville, FL         187        197 5.3%
13 Grand Rapids, MI         141        148 5.2%
14 Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL         341        359 5.1%
15 Rochester, NY         146        153 4.8%
16 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX         911        954 4.7%
17 Raleigh, NC         154        161 4.7%
18 Los Angeles, CA      1,941     2,032 4.7%
19 Richmond, VA         167        174 4.6%
20 Nashville, TN         242        253 4.6%
21 Indianapolis. IN         253        264 4.5%
22 Phoenix, AZ         592        618 4.3%
23 Sacramento, CA         307        321 4.3%
24 Cleveland, OH         242        252 4.3%
25 Austin, TX         295        307 4.2%
26 Boston, MA-NH         663        690 4.1%
27 Memphis, TN-MS-AR         182        189 4.1%
28 Oklahoma City, OK         195        203 4.0%
29 Atlanta, GA         719        747 4.0%
30 Hartford, CT         154        160 3.9%
31 San Jose, CA         254        263 3.9%
32 Pittsburgh, PA         293        305 3.8%
33 Providence, RI-MA         217        224 3.6%
34 San Diego, CA         521        540 3.5%
35 Baltimore, MD         381        394 3.5%
36 Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV         818        846 3.4%
37 San Francisco-Oakland, CA         605        625 3.4%
38 New Orleans. LA         176        181 3.3%
39 New York, NY-NJ-PA      2,740     2,828 3.2%
40 Columbus, OH         283        291 3.0%
41 Louisville, KY-IN         159        164 3.0%
42 Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD         823        848 3.0%
43 Las Vegas, NV         277        285 2.9%
44 Portland, OR-WA         306        311 1.8%
45 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN         280        285 1.7%
46 Kansas City, MO-KS         263        267 1.3%
47 St. Louis,, MO-IL         371        372 0.2%
48 Chicago, IL-IN-WI      1,326     1,328 0.2%
49 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI         470        471 0.2%
50 Birmingham, AL         151        151 -0.4%
51 Milwaukee,WI         216        215 -0.4%
52 Salt Lake City, UT         178        177 -0.5%
MMSAs    23,827   24,780 4.0%
Outside MMSAs    18,862   19,595 3.9%
United States    42,688   44,376 4.0%
In thousands

Analysis by Wendell Cox.

This story originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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I have composed widely about the commercial concerns of your era both in periodicals and in my new book. I concur much of this is determined by mass trading however strategies that make lodging more lavish and support holding swelling over employments, investment funds and venture are excessively fault for much of it
Online help with MBA homework

% growth or actual numbers?

couple problems with this article...

for example, while San Antonio's 9.2% growth LOOKS impressive - it's only 29,000 - roughly the same number as Boston (the city already has the highest % of 20-somethings compared to other major cities)

once you start getting into hard numbers - it appears that 20-somethings are still "flocking" to places like NYC and LA...

plus - of this number, who is heading up households and who is still living at home with parents? of this generation, over 1/3rd of them are still living at home with parents (over 50% under the age of 25). it would be more useful to explore where households headed by 20-somethings are growing - this would be a better indicator of where this generation is actually CHOOSING to move to.

What about jobs?

I always appreciate when someone takes the time to dispel widely-held myth, of which there are many surrounding Millennials. What I think might've added depth to this article is an examination of the impact of the economy--specifically the scarcity of jobs--on Millennials.

The author gently infers that Millennials might see urban living and fair trade coffee as antithetical to who they are--that most of this generation avoids urban cores because "Presumably many of them are more concerned with making a living than looking out for “fair trade” coffee or urban authenticity."

What about jobs? Employment statistics are conspicuously scarce in this digest of Millennial desires. If over 20 million of my generation "are also disproportionately unemployed or out of the workforce, and, living in their parents," then how can we tell what they want? People--no matter their age--go where the jobs are.

As an elder Millennial myself, many of us would love to eschew suburban dwellings in favor of urban areas where we can meet friends and engage in activities--all within walking distance. What keeps us from realizing that desire is the total lack of jobs that support the high rents that come with living downtown.

The author is really dancing around the central issue plaguing Millennials here: "Other millennials may well be living in suburban apartments, which tend to be somewhat less expensive, and others perhaps the oldest of the group, have begun...buying houses, which would tend to put them in the suburbs and smaller cities as well." Again, jobs. The jobs market is full of minimum skill, low- (or minimum) wage jobs. Where else would Millennials live?

The author makes a point of discussing college towns: many Millennials go to college and never leave because the cost of living is low! They can rent an apartment or an entire house and maintain a vehicle--all on the wages & tips earned at a restaurant. Furthermore, the Riverside-San Bernardino, Orlando, and LA areas all have HUGE inventories of REO properties, meaning it's way less expensive to buy a foreclosed home (or rent one from an investor) than it is to pay the exorbitant, trust-fund-high rents in America's capita of cool.

Finally, I agree that "marketers, homebuilders and politicians seeking to target the increasingly important millennial population need to look beyond urban cores." My caveat here is that if politicians were fulfilling their duties and driving economic expansion of the middle class--as opposed to maintaining ludicrous corporate welfare policies--then we'd see a greater influx of job-wielding Millennials rushing the gates of dilapidated downtowns everywhere. The sad irony for the small to mid-sized city I inhabit (and I suspect it's the same for cities of similar size across the U.S.): we would have a more robust urban core--and brimming tax coffers--if the Boomers who own the properties downtown would lower the prices within ranges Millennials could afford.

"Choices" matter: unintended consequences to Hip-city policy

I have been arguing for years, that hipster cities like Portland and SF and Seattle that constrain urban fringe growth, force up the cost of all housing, and the housing at the coolest locations becomes the most expensive of all, especially new developments in upzoned locations near the centre and near transit.

In contrast, a city like Atlanta can create upzoned nodes near transit stops, that remain affordable simply because the entire urban area's land rent curve is so low and flat, a legacy of the absence of fringe growth containment.

Houston actually does not lack tall buildings of offices and apartments, and NONE of this has been done where site rent is inflated and speculators are chasing rentier gains - it has all been done for good functional reasons. The result is genuine choice: not only are the suburban McMansions 1/3 the price of those in a hipster city with a UGB, the TOD condos and CBD apartments are 1/5 the price.

AND there is the employment growth to match......!

I keep saying that it is the US Bible Belt and South, with no anti-sprawl hysteria, just loads of "oppportunity urbanism", that OWN the future of western civilisation. Parts of the heartland, even with a rust belt past, might do well too provided they emulate the more business-friendly, freedom-loving South. The Coasts are the USA's future Britain and Spain.

Thank you

Your comments are very much on target.

I have written extensively about the economics of your generation both in periodicals and in my new book. I agree much of this is driven by economics but policies that make housing more expensive and favor asset inflation over jobs, savings and investment are too blame for much of it

We were genuinely surpised by the findings. Smart growth and new urbanist lobbying have been a boon to rent seekers more than for young urban types.


but not many of us want to live out in car-only suburbia

How do you propose to create walkable environments without policy and incentives? developers only go after money - it's either going to be high-end or some kind of tax break and funding (unless you've figured out a magic way to lower construction costs) - and if places continue to snob-zone themselves for single-use large-lot with low FAR and crazy set-backs - only building wide roads designed for car-dependency (i.e. purposefully designed to be unsafe for walking and biking)... how is it possible to create the right mix of housing types at the right density to support a range of incomes and preferences?

there has to be a trade-off...

btw - I'm another older millenial who wanted to live closer in to the urban core, but couldn't afford it. I'm lucky that I'm still close enough to bike to work (and have access to high quality schools for my kids), but I do have friends who were pushed out even further and to other cities - NONE of them wanted to leave. joke here is "drive until you qualify."