Here’s the usual media narrative: Millennials prefer cities to suburbs. They love renting lofts and disdain single-family homes; they ride the subway (or take an Uber) because they barely know how to drive. Where their parents wanted green lawns and cul-de-sacs, today’s young Americans want walkable neighborhoods and local bars with plenty of craft beers on draft.
The numbers tell a different story. Whether by choice or economic circumstance, young Americans are still more likely to leave the city for the suburbs than the other way around.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week, 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426,000 moved in the other direction. Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even starker: 721,000 moved out of the city, compared with 554,000 who moved in. Somewhat more people in both age groups currently live in the suburbs than in the city.
Indeed, for all the talk of the rebirth of American cities, the draw of the suburbs remains powerful. Across all ages, races, incomes and education groups, more Americans are still moving out of cities than in. (Urban populations are still growing, but because of births and immigration, not internal migration.)
The common narrative isn’t entirely wrong about the long-term trend lines. Millennials are moving to the suburbs at a much lower rate than past generations did at the same age. In the mid-1990s, people ages 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa. Today, they’re only about a quarter more likely. But even that slowdown appears to be mostly about people delaying their move to the suburbs, not forgoing it entirely. Today’s 30- to 44-year-olds are actually heading for the suburbs at a significantly faster rate than in the 1990s.
The Census Bureau’s definition of the suburbs is broad, covering anywhere that’s inside a metropolitan area but outside a principal city. So the latest data doesn’t distinguish between classic picket-fence suburbs and the kind of faux-urban, walkable suburban developments that have become more common in recent years.
But a survey released earlier this year found that most millennials still want a traditional suburban experience, complete with big single-family homes. The American Community Survey, which provides a more granular look than the data released this week, tells much the same story, said Jed Kolko, chief economist of the real estate site Trulia.
“The fastest population growth right now is in the lowest-density neighborhoods, the suburb-iest suburbs,” Kolko said.
So why has the “city-loving millennials” story gained so much traction? Kolko has a theory: As American cities have become safer and more expensive, they have become increasingly dominated by the affluent and well-educated — exactly the people who drive the media narrative.
“Your typical young, elite-media-outlet journalist probably is more likely to be living more years in the city than 20 years ago,” Kolko said.
Kolko stressed that’s a theory — he doesn’t have solid data to back it up. But for the record, I’m 34 and live in Brooklyn.
In all cases in this article, I’m counting people who moved from “central cities” to suburbs, and vice versa, using the Census Bureau’s definition of those terms.