Chicagoans Are Getting Older And Smarter


Chicagoans are getting older, as is the rest of the United States. The median age of Chicagoans has increased from 31.5 in 2000 to 34.4 in 2016. What is particularly noteworthy is that Chicago is losing school-age children while it is gaining young college graduates and seniors.

The growth in college graduates living in the city has resulted in the highest percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree among the largest 7 cities in the United States. Chicago beats New York City and Los Angeles! If the sample is limited to non-Hispanic whites, Chicago even beats San Jose and San Diego. However, smaller cities like Boston and San Francisco have higher levels of educational attainment. This is good news for Chicago because economic studies show that education is an important key to urban economic growth.

Although Chicago is attracting young college graduates, the number of children in Chicago less than 15 years old has declined by 25% since 2000 (Table 1). The decline has been particularly large for African-Americans followed by Hispanics. At the same time, there has been a small increase in non-Hispanic white children living in the city. The number of non-Hispanic white children living in Chicago is too small to offset the declines in African-American and Hispanic enrollment in Chicago’s public schools. Further, about half (51%) of the school-age non-Hispanic white children in the city attend private schools. One of the consequences of this is declines in enrollment in Chicago public schools.

As the number of school-age children living in Chicago has declined, there has also been a decline in 35 to 54 year olds. This is partly a result of the parents of school-age children moving to the suburbs. They move there because the amenities of the suburbs are relatively more attractive including less crime and better schools. Recent trends in families with school-age children moving from the city to the suburbs of Chicago are consistent with previous trends that William Testa and I have documented in several academic papers and in a previous post (“Children and Cities”) in 2013.

Since 2000, there has also been in a decline in pre-school age children in Chicago. This implies that public school enrollment will continue to decline going forward.

Apart from revenue consequences for the Chicago public school system, one of the other consequences of declines in school-age children living in Chicago is increases in school-age children living in some of the suburbs of Chicago. For example, Evanston Township High School, the suburb just north of the city of Chicago, has the largest enrollment in 30 years.

While Chicago has been losing children, it has been gaining older residents. Two changes stand out. First, there has been a modest increase in the number of 25 to 34 year olds living in Chicago since 2010. While the number of African-Americans and Hispanics 25 to 34 living in Chicago has declined over the past 10 years, the number of non-Hispanic whites living in the city has increased considerably. Many in this group are college educated and are populating areas in and around the central business district and trendy neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Growth in this cohort is the key reason why the city of Chicago has one of the highest levels of educational attainment among large cities. The Chicago economy would probably be weaker without these changes.

This past year, a little over 2 of 3 college graduates 25 to 34 in Cook County lived in the city of Chicago. The city only account for about half of the population in Cook County. The attraction for this group includes good jobs and the amenities that the city has to offer. In-migration of 20-somethings into the city is additionally indicated by increases in the size of the 15 to 24-year-old cohort from 2000 to 2010 and since 2010 (Table 1).

The other key change is growth in the number of older Chicagoans. Since 2000, the number of adults 55 to 64 has increased by more than one-third. While the number of seniors 65 and older decreased between 2000 and 2010, it has increased since 2010. Overall, the number of 55 and older adults living in Chicago has increased by about one-sixth since 2000 (Table 1). The growth in the senior population is mostly a result of natural increase because the size of older cohort in 2000 has decreased.

However, there has been growth in the size of the senior cohort living in the center of Chicago (The Loop and surrounding community areas). These are mostly highly educated, affluent households some of whom have second residences elsewhere. The amenities of the city are apparently attractive to a relatively small number of older individuals and families as well. Data in Table 2 show that the Central Business District of Chicago (The Loop) and the community areas surrounding the CBD have been gaining population since 1990. Further, the size of older cohort living in the central areas of Chicago have increased since 2010. The one exception is the Near West Side that has a particularly young population.

The data also indicate large increases in educational levels in the population living in and around The Loop. Roughly 3 out of 4 adults living in this area have at least a bachelor’s degree (Table 3). The Near West Side and the Near South Side have experienced particularly large increases in college graduates living in these areas since 1990.

Growth in the population living in the central part of Chicago is associated with growth in employment in the Central Business District and the Outer Business Ring. Private sector employment in central Chicago is at an all-time high, at least over the past half-century (up 24% since 2010). On the other hand, jobs in the rest of the city have declined over the long haul although they are up slightly since 2010 (Table 4).

One of the consequences of this is growth in suburban residents working in the city. Census data indicate that there were 50,000 more suburban residents working in the city of Chicago in 2015 relative to 2010. The largest growth in suburban commuters was in Evanston and Oak Park, suburbs that border the city of Chicago. Both have good public transit access to jobs in downtown Chicago and both have tried to foster transit-oriented residential development.

Although the rate of employment growth in the city of Chicago since 2010 is at about the same rate as employment growth in the metropolitan area, suburban employment growth swamps employment changes in the metropolitan area over the past few decades. Since 1990, the suburbs have gain about a half million private sector jobs while job growth in the city has been stagnant (Table 4). In brief, the center of Chicago and the outer ring of suburbs have done well relative to the rest of the city of Chicago and the inner ring of suburbs in Cook County with some exceptions.

Although the center of Chicago is doing relatively well, most community areas in Chicago are not. Since 2000, the vast majority of community areas in the city have lost population. This is particularly the case for depressed African-American communities like Englewood. One of the consequences of this is substantial out-migration especially by African-Americans to suburban communities and elsewhere.

Overall, the Chicago metropolitan area has been a laggard in attracting households and jobs. Further, the city has lost population for the past 3 years although the decline is very modest. Be that as it may, Chicago has many competitive advantages including a relatively high level of educational attainment although further progress will require continued improvement in other areas including primary and secondary education, safety, and government finances. That is, although education is a necessary condition for economic progress, it is not a sufficient condition.

Regarding the public school system that was once called “the worst in the nation,” high school graduation rates, the percentage going on to college, and test scores are up significantly over the past ten years. A study by Stanford researchers notes that the Chicago public school system is one of the fastest improving in the United States. Although violent crime rates had been declining in Chicago since the 1990s, by about one-half, the rate including murders increased dramatically in 2016. Chicago had 765 murders that year. his was more than in New York City and Los Angeles combined and up from 468 murders the year before. This past year the number of murders in Chicago declined by about 100 although the rate is still relatively high. Finally, the city of Chicago has one of the highest unfunded pension liabilities in the United States that is resulting in significant increases in local taxes. This will require additional attention going forward.

William Sander is Professor of Economics at DePaul University in Chicago. He has also taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of the Philippines. He has a master’s degree in regional planning from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in natural resource economics.

Photo: Pedro Szekely, via Flickr, using CC License.