Young Americans: Yearning for the Suburbs, Stuck in the City

Many Millennials want what their parents had: a spacious, single-family home. But they can't afford to leave their metropolitan lives.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

One aspect of the Millennial mythos is that young people love cities. They love bike lanes and ethically-sourced coffee and rooftop gardens. Last year, a Nielsen study appeared to confirm the cliché: The percentage of young adults who live in cities is higher than ever. In fact, 62 percent of the poll's Millennial respondents said they wanted to live near a medley of shops, restaurants, and offices.

But it's important not to mistake a preference for an urban lifestyle with a preference for cities themselves. It's true that cities have a generous amount of the shop-restaurant-office medleys that young people desire, but it's also true that metropolitan areas boast many of the highest-paying jobs—which is probably a bigger draw for a generation that was starting or just settling into their careers when the recession hit.

It's now the case that after young people live in a prosperous city for a few years, they're finding it increasingly hard to get the economic foothold that would allow them to leave. Median wages have fallen for this generation almost across the board, which means young people have had a hard time saving money and building the good credit needed to secure a mortgage and buy a house elsewhere. This inability to flee from cities might be masking the fact that many Millennials still yearn for a house in the suburbs.

The Wall Street Journal

Leading up to the recession, the populations of 25-to-34-year-olds in big metro areas were declining every year, as young people bought houses in smaller cities. The Wall Street Journal reported that about 50,000 young adults were leaving New York and Los Angeles every year between 2004 and 2007. Between 2010 and 2013, that number dropped below 23,000 for New York and to about 12,000 for Los Angeles.

One reason this group is staying in cities might be that they can't afford to leave, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Millennials often don’t have enough money saved up to consider buying a house somewhere else—let alone covering the moving costs to get there or possibly suffering a pay cut or taking on a less thrilling job.

This isn’t how it used to be. In previous decades, cities like New York and Los Angeles attracted twentysomethings with educational or professional opportunities, and then those twentysomethings would migrate to places where they could settle down with a family and buy a spacious house after a few years in the city. This geographic dispersal of highly-skilled workers, the norm for decades, meant that the gains of states with stronger economies could be spread to those with weaker ones.

It's easy to assume that Millennials love cities simply because so many of them live there, but it looks like a majority of them, after a stint in a city, still yearn for the same thing their parents pursued: a single-family home in a suburban neighborhood. A survey by the National Association of Home Builders released last week called on about 1,500 people born after 1977. Sixty-six percent of those respondents said they wanted to live in the suburbs, versus the 10 percent who wanted to live in a city.

Where Do Millennials Want to Live?
National Association of Home Builders

That survey has a major caveat: It only covered people who had purchased a home within the past three years or intended to in the next three, so the results could be exaggerated (not to mention the fact that the poll was conducted by a bunch of people who’d very much like it if more homes were built). But this isn’t an isolated finding. In the summer of 2013, the Demand Institute, a nonprofit think tank, posed a similar question to about 1,000 Millennials, aged 18 to 29. Nearly half said they’d like to have their next home be in the suburbs, while 38 percent preferred cities.

It appears that what many Millennials want when picking out a place to raise a family isn’t a city per se, but rather the perks that are traditionally associated with living in a city: restaurants, shops, and grocery stores within walking distance, easy access to public transportation. In other words, they might want suburbs that are more city-like than the ones they grew up in. Some suburbs are like that—it’s just that young people can’t afford to move there and still advance professionally. Until the recovery reaches them, many of them will keep living in big metro areas, whether they truly prefer to or not.