demographic transformation
The Next Wave of Suburbanization?

The idea of the early-professional twenty-something urban millennial liberal sharing an apartment in an expensive urban area has become central to our cultural understanding of American cities in the years since the financial crisis. But as the economy recovers and energy prices go down and the older cohort of millennials starts to get married in larger numbers, residential patterns may change significantly, with important consequences for America’s politics and geography. The New York Times reports :

Millennials are generally considered to be those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s or early 2000s, and many in this generation are aging from their 20s into the more traditionally suburban child-raising years. There are already some signs that the inflow of young professionals into cities has reached its peak, and that the outflow of mid-30s couples to the suburbs has resumed after stalling during the Great Recession. […]

The debate is full of contours and caveats, but it really boils down to this: Are large numbers of millennials really so enamored with city living that they will age and raise families inside the urban core, or will many of them, like earlier generations, eventually head to the suburbs in search of bigger homes and better school districts?

As WRM noted last month, America has experienced two major waves of suburbanization in the past century. The first took place during the post-World War II economic boom, supported by new mortgage financing and infrastructure programs. This wave came to a halt during the energy and inflation crises of the 1970s, when homeownership seemed more elusive and urban living once again seemed to be the way of the future. But suburbanization restarted in a big way during the 1980s, when “the Baby Boom generation, as leftist and disillusioned in the 1970s as Millennials are today, moved en masse to the burbs, started families, and grew more stable and conservative in their habits as they watched their equity grow.”

The end of the millennial urban boom would be significant for two reasons. First, the labor-intensive projects required to support it—federally-funded highways and schools, plus large-scale privately-funded home construction—would be a boon to the working class that has been battered by the last generation of globalization and de-industrialization.

Second, changing demographics can yield changing politics. Homeowners tend to be more conservative than renters; the demands of family life, property taxes, and participation in the local community tend to make people more averse to radical social change. Millennials just might follow in the path of the Boomers and move right politically as they grow older and leave deep-blue city centers. The fabled “Emerging Democratic Majority” is composed of a number of identity groups, young urban singles chief among them. If this group starts to fade and join the more centrist constituency of suburban homeowners, it could send powerful ripples through the American political system.

It is in the interest of Republicans—both the Trump administration and GOP state legislatures—to work on de-regulation and infrastructure reforms that can facilitate this process. Not only would it help the blue collar workers that are a core GOP constituency and deliver economic benefits to spacious and inexpensive red states; it would also help form the demographic basis for enduring Republican political power.

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