Tracking America's 'Hidden Millennials'


When it comes to attracting the hip and cool, Southern California, long a cultural trendsetter, appears to be falling behind – at least in the view of the national media. Articles about where millennials are, or should be, going rarely mention anywhere in this region as a top choice.

Rather than hang out at the beach or enjoy poolside ambience, the conventional wisdom is that the millennial generation – those born after 1983 – would rather go anywhere else. Southern California is not on a list of the top 12 regions (although San Diego gets a mention) for millennials, published in the Huffington Post. Other “best” lists and similar compilations invariably highlight New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and Boston, but rarely SoCal.

What numbers tell us

But sometimes, before succumbing to conventional wisdom, one has to look at the numbers. We examined the percentages of millennials – we took the ages 20-29 – and their growth in all 52 major U.S. metropolitan areas. To our surprise, Los Angeles-Orange County scored very high – No. 5 – with a 15.5 percent share. That’s well above the 14 percent total nationally. San Bernardino-Riverside, at 15 percent, ranked ninth.

This research placed Southern California well ahead of such supposed youth magnets as Seattle, Boston, New York and San Francisco, whose population is actually under-represented in terms of millennials. Nor, despite the social media bubble, are things shifting to the denser “hip,” “cool” cities so widely celebrated in the media. In fact, with the exception of Seattle, the Los Angeles area’s rate of millennial growth far outstripped that of Austin, New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Southern California turns out to be more of a youth magnet than one might think. In terms of millennials’ share of population growth, San Bernardino-Riverside ranked second of 52 metro areas, adding 50,000 millennials, an 8.3 percent increase since 2010. Los Angeles and Orange counties – older, settled areas with far lower population growth – together registered 18th, adding 90,000 twenty-somethings since 2010. That’s the most of any metropolitan area, including New York.

Reality and Perception

What accounts for this gap between perception and reality? One key factor lies with the media, which, outside Hollywood, has abandoned Southern California. Like many shrinking industries, news media is consolidating in a few strongholds – New York, Washington and, increasingly, San Francisco. Reporters from these cities tend to like (at least for now) dense, urban, transit-dependent places. Many of their friends do, too,rejecting “sprawling, car-dependent cities.” Like it or not, that sums up Southern California.

Yet, the common assertion that most millennials hate suburbs, cars and “sprawl” may be yet another urban myth promulgated by developers, planners and their handmaidens in the media. It turns out that the percentage of twenty-somethings nationally living in the denser core counties in 2013 is slightly lower than in 2010. The vast majority of millennials, roughly 70 percent, live well outside the core counties, and their numbers grew overall by three times as much over the past three years.

In fact, virtually all the densest core areas – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston – lost millennials. Everybody’s favorite millennial destination, Portland, Ore., experienced the second-greatest loss of population ages 20-29 in its core county, surpassed only by St. Louis.

It appears that being part of a “sprawling area,” in fact, does not discourage millennial growth. The fastest-growing millennial regions – San Antonio, the Inland Empire, Orlando, Fla. – are all renowned for spreading out. Instead of living in high-density areas, these millennials reside in apartments and homes distant from the core; many, perhaps one in three, are still at their parents’ houses.

We refer to them as the “hidden millennials.” They are not the high-profile Brooklyn hipsters and their imitators nationally; nor are they attached to the social media oligarchy around San Francisco. They live far from the iPads of the reportorial class and the promotors of the “hip and cool” urban gospel. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible in the minds of most media.

One last thing to keep in mind. Many of these hidden millennials are working-class and minorities. One possible explanation for Southern California’s millennial surge lies with large Hispanic communities, which for three decades have maintained a considerably higher birth rate than that of non-Hispanic whites. Nationally, Latinos constitute 20 percent of millennials, compared with 13 percent of U.S. residents over age 30. In Southern California, Latinos account for slightly over half of twenty-somethings and 37 percent of older cohorts.

Where do Southern California millennials Live?

The widely embraced “back to the city core” mantra attributed to millennials is partially true but definitely overstated, particularly in Southern California. To be sure, from 2000-10, Downtown Los Angeles gained more than 4,200 twenty-somethings, an impressive 25 percent increase. But these gains were essentially offset by losses of more than 17,000 in the areas bounded by the South Bay, Southeast L.A. County, West L.A. and the Santa Monica Mountains. As we have seen in many American regions, strong gains of millennials in the core have been counterbalanced by a loss of younger people in the surrounding areas.

In contrast, the big growth has occurred in places that are not usually associated with hip youth culture. The biggest percentage increases in millennial populations – far higher than for Downtown L.A. – have occurred in various Inland Empire communities, as well as Valencia, the Victor Valley, Irvine and Coachella. In actual numbers, the predominance of these outlying areas is overwhelming. Irvine’s and South Orange County’s gain of more than 19,000 millennials stands out, not to mention the Inland Empire’s gain of 95,000 or even the nearly 20,000 who have appeared in far-flung Valencia-Antelope Valley. Southwestern Riverside County (Temecula-Murrieta-Perris) gained nearly 50,000, the largest of any area subregion.

Overall, millennial growth in the urban core, with the exception of Downtown L.A., is very slow or even negative. It is also negligible in extra-expensive areas of the Westside and coastal Orange County; high rents and housing prices make these areas increasingly off-limits to all but the most well-heeled millennials. Policymakers, often obsessed with the urban core and its hipster denizens, need to recognize this varied millennial geography. Most of the next generation are not hanging out in cool Hollywood cafes but in malls in the outer periphery or in middle- and upper-middle-class, family-friendly enclaves such as Valencia or Irvine.

These millennials may be “hidden” but servicing their needs and desires deserves a far more concerted effort by policymakers. This means such things as looking to the periphery for expanding parks, cultural events and educational opportunities that may persuade these millennials to stay and help rebuild this region’s economy.

The demographic future of Southern California will not be determined primarily on Spring Street or Rodeo Drive but across, literally, hundreds of communities, often far-flung, where the bulk of our twenty-somethings reside.

This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

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. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available for pre-order atAmazon and Telos Press. 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.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, a St. Louis public policy consultancy, and a former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

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Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes. did they get there?

"Demographer" Wendell Cox, is either misleading or ignorant,as usual. He looked only at populations, but forgot to ask how the millennials got there. Of course Riverside/SanBernardino has tons of millennials, it has a large population, a large hispanic population, and was developed into the sprawling mess that it is in the recent past.
So he's stating that there are more millennials where the population is higher, in general. Amazing!
Los Angeles has more millennials than San Francisco. Since the population of Los Angeles is nearing 4 million vs. San Francisco with 830,000, it's not exactly rocket science to note that there are more millennials there. He forgot to ask if they were raised there or when they moved there, and where they would like to live if they could live anywhere. Of course others have asked the same question, and all research has pointed out that they tend to want to live in denser urban environments.
These are not "cherry picked" websites. I simply dida Google search using these paramaters: "Where do millennials want to live" and these are the first URLs.

Also telling are stats on the drastic increase in the number of millennials who do not drive, don't get drivers' licenses, and are taking transit.

As they say, numbers don't lie. I wish the same were true for Mr. cox.


Millennials aren't flocking from Downtown LA, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston because they prefer suburbs. They're going to the suburbs because they simply can't afford where to live where they would prefer to live. The cities you listed are notorious for being the most unaffordable cities in America for housing. Why? Because they are in high demand. Have you actually spoken to any of these millennials to see why they are going to the suburbs?

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There is no excuse for unaffordable housing

The article does point out that Millennials are being driven by circumstances and what they can afford. Life is like this.

But there is no excuse for systemically unaffordable housing, because farmland costs little enough everywhere, that new housing can be built for around 3 times median household income just provided there is no quota scheme, usually regulatory, that enables land owners to price-gouge.

California used to be affordable and there is no reason it couldn't still be, apart from political will. Ironically, it became unaffordable AFTER it lost much of its earlier charm and became congested and polluted and frantic. The "amenity" excuse does not stack up against the real-world evidence everywhere. You can make any city an unaffordable city just by constraining the amount of rural land beyond the fringe that is allowed to be used for housing. No city in the UK is affordable, in spite of many of them being ugly, dreary and inclement places to live.

Phoenix was always dismissed by nurbies, same as Houston, as "cheap because no-one wants to live there"; yet from 2003 to 2007 the house prices doubled. Did it suddenly gain a whole lot of amenity value? Or did something happen with the supply of non-urban land?

I find it amusing that the

I find it amusing that the idea that unfettered use of "farmland" for sprawl (effectively, capping what may be productive and fertile soil, with concrete and asphalt pavement, or converting the land into vast tracts of mostly unused mowed grass medians and lawns) would be viewed as any kind of positive use of resources.

Houston, by the way, is experiencing an energy-driven economic boom. Look at the industry sectors in which the vast majority of locally based companies operate. The resulting sheer scale of move-ins for job reasons, plus high retention of indigenous folk for the same reasons, is sufficient to drive up housing prices. Housing price growth can happen despite lack of artificial zoning or growth constraints, for a variety of reasons.

Econ 101: land increases in value when converted FROM rural use

The world does not lack land for farming. Urban land is currently 0.7% of the total, versus around 20% for farming. Urban land is unlikely to exceed 3% of the total even under sprawl for all urban dwellers.

Urban economies are where all the added creation of new wealth has occurred in the last 6 decades. It would be madness to preserve already-massive amounts of farmland (often used for growing exported products of dubious net profitability) and hinder urban economies from utilising land for higher value uses in the overall. Part of urban economies utilisation of land, is the provision of living space and amenities of the kind that urban populations with increasing incomes, want.

Constraining urban growth has unintended consequences for urban productivity and for society. The UK has been constraining urban growth for the longest (among developed countries), and has a productivity gap, not a productivity advantage. It also has the worst problems with social injustice in housing amenity.