The Millennial generation, which I describe as people born between 1985 and 1995, has long been heralded as a game-changer in urban issues. Apparently we want to drive less, text and share more, and live closer to everything, and extrapolating these trends into the future means good things for urban centers and the establishment of the Millennials as a major demographic. An unscientific survey I conducted through social media sites mostly confirms these trends, though they are not as pronounced as contemporary discourse would have one believe.
I gathered 78 responses on a short survey that asked about young peoples’ living preferences now and five years into the future. Here I offer an analysis on the data to envision the consequences for cities in the near future.
Unsurprisingly, many of the respondents were born in the age range I specified. However an anonymous site I used seemingly has a younger audience than I expected, accounting for many of the 18 years-or-less answers.
Most of the respondents have college experience, which is expected because of the usage of my own social media networks.
Those surveyed have a wide range of anticipated career fields, with notable majorities in science, IT, government, and healthcare. Additionally, many chose ‘other’, and common responses there included law, art, teaching, journalism, and social work. Many of these fields are part of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’, which exhibits the values of talent, tolerance, and technology. These types of people have been identified as savvy and trend-setting entrepreneurs that seek and create progressive social conditions. They will certainly play a role in the future of local economies.
Most of the respondents live in what they consider suburban places, with urban dwellers a close second. This is roughly equal to the general U.S. population, of which 80 percent live in ‘urban areas’ (the term encompassing both cities and suburbs). So, at the moment, the distribution of Millennials, many of whom are still too young to live on their own, is typical.
When asked where they see themselves living five years from, as their career and family get started, 54 percent of respondents expected to be renting an urban apartment. A sizable 34 percent expected to be living in a suburban area. This data should be taken with a grain of salt, because respondents could choose one living situation per community type, resulting in urban and suburban answers totaling 51 out of 44 respondents. Even so, it is clear that urban areas will be seeing an influx of Millennial residents in the years ahead.
The comparison between these two charts is one of the most intriguing results. Currently, for activities other than school, respondents overwhelmingly travel by car, with walking and transit following far behind. In the future, alternative transportation is expected to be much more competitive with cars. Added together, walking, biking, and transit make up greater percentages of expected travel than cars; 75 percent of responses for future shopping, for example, were alternative. These modes are most feasible within dense and walkable urban areas, which correlates with the previous chart on living situations.
Cars still make up significant percentages, but perhaps not as much as expected considering the earlier amount of suburban living responses. It is also possible that respondents are anticipating using car-sharing services such as Car2Go or Zimride instead of single-occupancy trips, but further study is needed. It is a hopeful sign for planners that aspire to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and the associated pollution and congestion, in their cities.
Personally, I do not own a car nor want to for the foreseeable future. Seattle has plenty of Zipcar availability for occasional large-haul grocery or long-distance recreational trips that can’t be easily done with mass transit.
This question asked respondents to rate community features that they care about currently. I chose to list buzzwords and trending phrases that planners and designers are raving about to see if the upcoming generation of urban residents actually have a say on the issues.
We can see that diversity and proximity to neighbors are least important, while nearby work, shopping/entertainment, and recreation are most important. The former could be a reflection of social media and technology making digital connections more important than interacting with nearby people. Indeed, they would rather give up their cars than their phones and computers, so perhaps meeting a diverse range of people online is satisfactory. Related to driving less, respondents indicate they want physical necessities and pleasures to be near where they live.
While in general the other features seem to be favorable to respondents, the biggest neutral response was ‘opportunities to join community organizations’; 73 percent of respondents ranked this unimportant or neutral. Again, this may be related to online communities competing with physical ones, and presents an interesting dilemma for organizations that are trying to attract young members. For what it’s worth, I’ve experienced this phenomena firsthand in groups that I’ve participated in and believe it’s a challenge worth tackling. Young professionals have a variety of skills, viewpoints, and energy that can benefit community organizations.
When asked how they would feel about the same features five years from now, answers were somewhat different. Respondents still mostly don’t think who their neighbors are will be important, but issues regarding transportation jumped to the highest importance. The need for a short commute is not revealing, considering that in five years many Millennials will be working, but combined with high ratings given to multiple transportation modes and frequent public service it can be inferred that respondents will not be depending on cars as much. Also notable are the high percentage of importance placed on nearby parks and recreation, recycling services, and sustainability issues. This suggests that Millennials will be looking for progressive and environmentally-mindful cities that have great access to parks, so civic leaders take note.
Also important for most respondents was rapid public safety response times. Taken with the other features that relate to proximity, this indicates that Millennials are looking to live in compact communities with a variety of services and activities near their homes.
The questions referred to were about respondents’ living styles and preferences five years from now, discussed above. While it can be expected that Millennials will generally want different lifestyles than their baby boomer parents, it comes down to some factors that will repeat over time. When asked to elaborate, one of the respondents said their parents have “more focus on work and family than on school and entertainment”. Another explained their parents prefer “owning a house in the suburbs and driving everywhere, with the attendant change in priorities.” This is sure to be true of Millennials as they age and start families, and some may not find cities to be preferable anymore. Indeed, another respondent said their parents “are moving to a more rural area for retirement”. It’s certainly possible that the Millennial migration to cities will not be permanent, but only part of a historical cycle that sees young adults prefering urban living.
To be fair, not all respondents know where their careers and lives will take them. One respondent said, “Although I think I’d prefer living in a suburban environment, I wouldn’t mind if my responsibilities took me to the city”. Another said, “I most likely will have a car by then and therefore things being in walking distance are not as important. Also I am aware that I most likely will change more once I have completed college.”
Other responses predict a more defined shift. “I want to be close to work, whereas my parents don’t mind having a 50+ minute commute”, said one respondent. Similarly, another said, “I would prefer to live in a bigger city than where I was raised, with inherent differences from the suburbs.” Another replied, “My parents own a home, while I expect to rent for the foreseeable future. My parents travel mostly by car, while I expect to use solely public transport (and walking).” One person answered, “I prefer to live in an urban environment, and place more value on sustainability, and supporting local business.”
From this unscientific data I find that most of the hype regarding a ‘Millennial urban migration’ to be accurate, with some exceptions. Many Millennials see themselves moving to cities and renting their homes, but suburbs will not be abandoned by any means. They want to live in dense, walkable places, but are not so concerned with who their neighbors are, probably thanks to the Internet. They want work, shopping, entertainment, and recreation to be reachable by bike, foot, bike, or by transit within a reasonable time. They aren’t too concerned with joining local organizations and interest groups, but are interested in progressive municipal policies regarding climate change, building and urban design, recycling, and promoting local businesses and food.
This analysis is by no means comprehensive and there are more complete studies by professional scholars available. From my own social networks, it appears that future planners and city leaders can be optimistic about their young citizens, but only if Millennials can be retained as they age.