Are millennials increasingly living in cities? If you’re a young college graduate in Brooklyn, that sounds like a stupid question. Between 2000 and 2013, the share of adults living in Brooklyn who were 25 to 34 years old and had bachelor’s degrees rose 50 percent. Same in Washington, D.C. Does this mean that millennials, more than earlier generations, want dense, walkable neighborhoods, rather than a house in the suburbs — especially after watching Gen Xers suffer in the foreclosure crisis after last decade’s housing bubble burst?
While 25- to 29-year-olds are the age group most likely to live in urban neighborhoods, followed by people in their early 20s, that’s hardly a new phenomenon. To see whether millennials are different from earlier generations, we have to compare them with the same age group in the past. College graduates in the highest-density neighborhoods turn out to be a poor guide to whether there’s been a broader generational shift toward city living. Most urban neighborhoods are not Brooklyn, and most 25- to 34-year-olds don’t have bachelor’s degrees.
The millennial generation as a whole is not especially urban, as FiveThirtyEight economics writer Ben Casselman pointed out last month. According to the most recent detailed census data available, covering the years 2009 to 2013, 25- to 34-year-olds are slightly less likely to live in urban neighborhoods than 25- to 34-year-olds in 2000. That share dropped 0.3 percentage points — a 1 percent decline — as the chart shows.1
To see the Brooklyn — or Logan Circle (Washington), or LoDo (Denver), or downtown Los Angeles — effect, look only at 25- to 34-year-olds2 with at least a bachelor’s degree and at the subset of urban neighborhoods with the highest population density — the hyper-urban neighborhoods. The share of college-educated millennials living in these city neighborhoods rose 1.7 percentage points, a 17 percent increase — a big jump. But only 32 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have bachelor’s degrees. The two-thirds of millennials who lack a bachelor’s degree are becoming less likely to live in urban neighborhoods (-8 percent) and even less so in hyper-urban neighborhoods (-10 percent).3
Even the movement of college-educated millennials toward high-density neighborhoods is less dramatic than it appears. Two broader shifts make it easy to overstate that trend. First is that 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees are a growing share of the adult population, up from 5.2 percent of all adults in 2000 to 5.6 percent in 2013. Second is that older adults — especially those 65 and older — are notably less likely to live in urban neighborhoods now than in 2000, as they stay longer in single-family homes. So the adult you randomly bump into in a hyper-urban neighborhood is 30 percent more likely to be a college-educated 25- to 34-year-old now than a decade ago (or 50 percent more likely if you’re in Brooklyn), but the odds that a randomly selected college-educated 25- to 34-year-old American lives in a hyper-urban neighborhood is up only 17 percent. The composition of cities is changing more than the behaviors of college-educated young adults are.
And then there’s the interpretation. College-educated millennials aren’t living in cities just because their tastes are urbanizing — other demographic factors also play a role. Almost half of the increase is explained by their being less likely to be married or to have children today than educated young adults were a decade ago. Add in a few more factors, like race and ethnicity, and we can attribute more than half the post-2000 increase in college-educated young adults living in hyper-urban neighborhoods to changes in their cohort’s demographic composition.4
Millennials overall, therefore, are not increasingly living in urban neighborhoods. Rather, the most educated one-third of young adults are increasingly likely to live in the densest urban neighborhoods. That’s great news for cities trying to attract young graduates and a sign that urban neighborhoods have become more desirable for those who can afford them. But the presence of more smart young things in Brooklyn is not evidence that millennials are a more urban generation.