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Density Intensity
Gen Y's Urban Suburbanism

Life in the suburbs will be very different for millennials than it was for their parents. Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin goes another round with the “creative class” thesis that sees city-dwelling elites as the center of gravity for economic growth. In this latest piece, Kotkin argues that despite all the talk about urban millennials, Gen Y still very much plans to live in the suburbs:

Here’s how the geography of aging works. People are most likely to move to the core cities in their early 20s, but this migration peters out as people enter the end of that often tumultuous decade. By their 30s, they move increasingly to the suburbs, as well as outside the major metropolitan areas (the 52 metropolitan areas with a population over 1,000,000 in 2010).

This pattern breaks with the conventional wisdom but dovetails with research conducted by Frank Magid and Associates that finds that millennials prefer suburbs long-term as “their ideal place to live” by a margin of 2 to 1 over cities […]

He goes on to quote some interesting statistics about the desire for home ownership: according to one survey, 84 percent of current renters aged 18-34 plan to buy a house. Overall, it seems like millennials don’t differ all that much from their parents in their living preferences (one study even found that millennials want houses more than their parents did). At least here, the much-vaunted “generational shifts” between the Boomers and Gen Y aren’t in evidence.

But the most important point about living patterns is one that Kotkin doesn’t even touch on. In an earlier debate with Kotkin, Richard Florida (the father of creative class theory) identified density as the factor that drives growth: “When skilled people cluster, they become more productive. Their ideas mate, combining and recombining to generate the innovations that power growth.” The flaw, however, in linking density exclusively with cities is that it’s becoming increasingly possible for skilled people to cluster socially and intellectually even if they live in less demographically dense areas. Physical presence still matters as an incubator for social capital, of course, but techo-cultural developments like telework mean suburban communities are less disconnected now from social capital networks than ever before. Ideas can combine and recombine without ever changing out of their pajamas.

In short, when it comes to the Kotkin-Florida debate we can have our cake and eat it too. We’re happy for people to live wherever they want—city or suburbs or “urban light” or deep country—but the biggest development in recent years is that millennials who already do want the suburbs can now go there without removing themselves from the “creative class” economy.

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  • Bruce

    Is it easy for millennials to buy a house when they are working part time? Wait until they start getting the tax bill for our profligacy. Right now, nobody gets the tax bill as the Fed counterfeits the money. Their suburban dream will go up in the smoke created by Obamacare and a malfunctioning Fed printing press. Of course, house prices could drop by 50% if we return to a market based home lending system. Then they could afford them, but probably not on the part time income that Obama has relegated them to.

    • Jim__L

      ObamaCare is going to get tossed into the recycling bin of history. All it will take is a solid stand against it.

  • Corlyss

    I recommend that everyone drop what they are doing and take a few minutes to watch Extreme By Design:
    It’s available to watch online only thru 17 Dec, so you have to watch it soon.

    It’s an awesome show about millennials who enrolled in this Stanford program. The CPAP machine that doesn’t require oxygen for kids in 3rd world countries suffering from pneumonia was a stand-out, but the story about the infusion pump was an interesting glimpse into group dynamics in which the MBA student ex-platoon leader finally had to intervene to get the design genius off his rump to finish the project their team was doing. It’s faith-promoting.

  • Corlyss

    “millennials prefer suburbs long-term”

    I hazard to say that no millennials grew up in the kind of cities you see in 30s and 40s movies, i.e., before the post-war housing boom for which there was no room in cities proper. So why wouldn’t they expect their adult life to mirror what they knew growing up? Despite nostalgic 60s efforts to revive that kind of neighborhood life of mixed blue- and white-collar, working class and professional multi-ethnic mixing pots, they is gone forever. Even a friend who embraced city life, more passionately than anyone else I know, for all its perks, like walking distance from museums and concert venues, gave it up after he got to his mid-40s. He’d seen everything several times; the area was beginning to look down at the heel; crime was rising without much official response; his boyhood friends who had lived close by were scattered to the 4 winds; and he wanted to barbeque more than anything, which he couldn’t do on his tiny little balcony. So he became a suburbanite last year.

  • Boritz

    Articles abound about the un-Sustainability of suburbs. I thought the younger set was all about the S word. Aren’t these the people who recycle in order to help the earth? You can’t put a bin of plastic, glass, and paper at the curb and offset the horrors perpetrated upon the earth by a single (selfish) family (antiquated term at best) dwelling with a yard. Current owners of single family dwellings should be grandfathered in. New purchases of houses by Y’s should be subject to sustainability fees, environmental impact fees, green fees, and otherwise priced out of ever owning anything resembling real-estate. For the good of the planet.

    • Jim__L

      Don’t despair. The MSM and mainstream universities that are the incubators and popularizers of this kind of muzzy thinking are in free-fall.

      Family — in the traditional sense — is important. Kids who don’t have that are cheated, and they’re going to know they’re being cheated, and they’re going to be open to level-headed people with their best interests at heart pointing out exactly how and why 60s-era “values” cheated them.

      The sense that there is something better will fuel a new vitality, a rebirth, in the understanding of human relations that clear-eyed observers have seen for millennia. At a certain point, sheer novelty will actually help it back into the discourse again.


  • free_agent

    My expectation is that the millennials will move to the suburbs at about the same life-stage as when their parents did: When they marry, have kids, and start worrying about the safety of the streets and the quality of the schools, rather than the liveliness of the streets and the pick-up possibilities of the local bars. But these days, all that happens about age 30 rather than age 22…

  • Jim__L

    I’m part of a startup pursuing some technology that would quite literally change the course of human history… we’re a far-flung bunch, with Americans (both US and Canadian) from three different time zones, and a handful of Australians, one of whom currently lives and works in Europe.

    As far as “meetings of creative minds” goes, the Internet makes cities irrelevant.

    If anything, cities lead to sterility — in the literal sense. They are where families go to die. The life-experience disconnect between barren urbanites and productive suburban types is going to have to disqualify urbanites (like Florida — especially Florida) from holding positions of influence or power in government, as the problems of greying populations become more acute.

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