One of the reasons it’s a really terrible idea to talk about millennials as a single demographic block is that, more than any group of Americans before, our lives are shaped by whether we went to college. Culturally and economically, a 29-year-old with a bachelor’s degree is basically living in a different world than a 29-year-old who never made it past high school. We’re the inequality generation, and the biggest dividing line is still education.
That’s why I appreciated Trulia economist Jed Kolko’s post at FiveThirtyEight this week digging into the question of whether young adults are really more likely to live in an urban neighborhood than they were 15 years ago. The conventional wisdom about millennials is that we’re city types, much more so than Gen X or the Baby Boomers. But on the whole, Kolko finds, that’s not especially true. The percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds living in a high-density ZIP code is actually down a bit since 2000. The kids are actually getting a bit more suburban.
But the picture changes when you look at the breakdown by educational attainment. It turns out that the percentage of young college graduates living in urban areas has risen since 2000. But the share of high-school grads living downtown has decreased.
Kolko’s definition of “urban” requires a little bit of explaining. He isn’t looking at the fraction of young adults living inside city borders and outside. Instead, he uses census data to find neighborhoods where most of the housing is either made of apartment buildings or attached town homes. Some of those areas might technically be located in suburbs, even if they fit our classic concept of an urban environment (think Hoboken, New Jersey, right across the river from Manhattan). Meanwhile, city neighborhoods full of detached, single-family houses are technically considered suburban in his definition. If you live in the fancier parts of Northwest Washington, D.C., or the wealthiest enclaves of Austin, Texas, my guess is that Kolko’s data would label you a suburbanite.
Nonetheless, his findings are useful in that they tell us about the kinds of physical neighborhoods young adults are really gravitating toward—whether they’re happy to live in an apartment if it means they get to walk or take the subway to work, or whether they want a house with a garage, just like Mom and Dad. And it seems that dense, truly urban spaces are only becoming more attractive to bachelor’s holders. By bringing higher rents downtown, meanwhile, they’re probably pushing working-class young adults out to cheaper, less dense spaces. That’s a problem, given that it probably means longer, more expensive commutes for people who can afford it least.
This also helps explain why major American cities are starting to feel like playgrounds for twentysomethings with disposable income. Millennials may not be more urban overall, Kolko notes. But they’re a much larger group than Gen X, and more likely to have a college degree. So small changes in the living patterns of young, educated adults have helped completely remake the faces of places like Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. As he puts it: “The composition of cities is changing more than the behaviors of college-educated young adults are.”