Girl Gone Planning: Are Millennials Leaving the City for the Suburbs?

Since the end of the Great Recession in 2010, one of the big stories in demographics and urban planning has been the trend of Millennials flocking to cities. Granted Gen X really paved the way after all, as they were the ones who popularized urban living and gave us Friends and Sex and the City. Gen X may have made urban living popular again in the 90s, but they largely followed in the footsteps of their parents after that, started having kids, and moved on out to the suburbs in search of bigger homes and better schools. But something changed during and after the recession. Many Millennials delayed having children for various reasons (student loan debt, bad job market, desire to not have children, etc) and so these 'urban Millennials' followed their older Gen X brethren to downtowns during college but ended up staying longer and later than their older cohort.

Big, medium, and even small cities around the country were hoping that the generation that was raised by the Boomers out in the suburbs would be returning to downtowns for the long-haul, bringing with them breweries, yoga studios, gastro pubs, and co-working spaces. And for most of the last decade, the data seemed to support this narrative. Yes, a plurality of Millennials live in the suburbs, but a larger share live in urban neighborhoods than previous generations, and cities nationwide were riding this wave of renewal, including Albany, Schenectady, and Troy in the Capital District.

Recently however, since perhaps 2017, there have been conflicting reports and studies on whether the delay in child rearing that 'kept' Millennials in their walkable neighborhoods had finally come to a close. Buoyed by an improving economy, and faced with the fact that they were getting older, the narrative seemed to flip, and the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, in a mildly condescending tone to this reader that also felt like a scalding Baby Boomer yelling at an empty chair, that the kids were finally coming home to roost after their 'phase' in big evil city.

But none of the actual evidence is there to suggest that the urban Millennials are 'smartening up' and moving to cul-de-sacs. The mass exodus claim put forward by the WSJ turned out to be 27,000 25-39 year olds leaving the nation's largest cities (those with 500,000+ residents), which seems like a lot, but the number of 25-39 year olds living in those cities was over 10,000,000 people in 2018, so it is actually a very small percentage. While this may and could be the start of a trend, the WSJ only looked at big cities, and other signs are positive that Millennials may be leaving Chicago, NYC, and LA, and moving to places like Columbus, Burlington, and Boise. So perhaps these urban Millennials are trading more expensive downtowns for cheaper up-and-coming locales.

This news could be a boon for Albany, seeing as two of the most expensive real-estate markets in the country are less than 3 hours away to the south (NYC) and east (Boston). Albany boosters would be wise to take out some ads in those markets to advertise its cheaper housing, proximity (important for luring people who need to be back in Manhattan for meetings but can work remotely most of the week), and quality of life.

So the short answer to the question is no: The Millennials who came downtown between 2000 and 2015 aren't packing up minivans and moving to places that are named for things that the developers tore down to build homes on (think of idyllic sounding places like Oak Meadows or Rolling Hills). The longer answer is a bit more nuanced: Younger people want to live in more walkable communities, no matter what part of town they live in, and it would be wise for planners to continue taking that to heart and not let recent flashy headlines convince them otherwise.

Pedestrian mall in Burlington, VT with shops, restaurants, and bars.