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How Millennials Are Driving the Great Migration of the 21st Century

Suburbs are so 20th century. Here's why so many of us are moving back downtown.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Daniel Orth

 

 

Just after the close of World War II, the last Great Migration in the United States — the move from the city to the new suburbs — began to emerge, fueled by new roads, low congestion, and modest energy costs. It was a new beginning, a chance to shake off the past, and it came complete with the promise of more privacy, more safety, and easier financing.

Not surprisingly, Americans bought in.

After that, it didn’t take long for the preferred retailers to do likewise, abandoning the city and following their customers to the suburbs. The suburban single family home on a large lot became synonymous with the American Dream.

After 60 years, many commentators have announced that the American Dream is poised to make its next great shift — this time from the suburbs to the urban core of our cities. Indeed, at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in San Diego, Chris Nelson, Joe Molinaro and Shyam Kannan made it clear that a radical shift in preferences is on the horizon.

They’re not alone in that position.

Just last week, Robert Shiller of the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Home Price Index made the dramatic statement that, with our growing shift to renting and city living, suburban home prices may never rebound in our lifetime.

Why such pronounced findings? According to researchers, it lies in the preferences of our largest generation since the Boomers, the under 30 Generation Y.

But, why?

While the answer is complex, it comes into focus when you contrast the childhood lifestyle of Generation Y with the childhood lifestyle of previous generations. Like those before them, Generation Y currently finds themselves attracted to things they did not have growing up. Four that stand out are:

1. Safety to Adventure. Generation Y has grown up in the safest environment in human history. The suburban cul-de-sac offered a safe place to play, with lower crime rates than cities. But despite this safe environment, the need to fill a 24 hour news cycle in the emerging world of cable and online communications brought every localized “stranger danger” news story to a national audience, giving rise to the overprotective Helicopter Mom who oversees every minute of her child’s life. Whereas previous generations simply needed to come home before dark, Generation Y grew up with scheduled play dates and activities.

It should come as no surprise that this over-protected generation now celebrates dangerous and exciting activities like skydiving, rock climbing and bungee jumping.

At the same time, television shifted from glorifying the surburban lifestyle in the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g., Leave it to Beaver and the Brady Bunch) to glorifying the urban lifestyle in the 1990’s (e.g., Seinfeld and Friends).

 

These cultural changes have pushed Generation Y to look for more adventure than previous generations, and they are less fearful of cities than previous generations.

2. Isolated to Connected. While the suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle offered the safest environment the planet has ever seen, it also produced the most isolated and disconnected environment. Today’s children rarely have the freedom to roam beyond the cul-de-sac, ensuring their social lives are determined by the quality of friends on the same street, together with the nature of their scheduled social interactions beyond their neighborhood.

The net result? Generation Y wants to be more connected and less isolated than previous generations. They manifest this desire in their full-on embrace of social media and their desire to live in places where they can be around others; i.e., the densest, most active, areas of cities.

 
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