Popular Belief #1: Millennials are an urban generation.
Those who do not already live in the city aspire to do so.
Defining the idea that Millennials are an urban generation as a popular misconception may seem surprising at first: all media combined continually remind us that we are now living in an era of cities, and that urbanization is only likely to become more pronounced. In the United States, urban areas of more than 50,000 inhabitants account for 71.2% of the population, and in the European Union, 72.4% of citizens live in a city or city suburb. Yet the “urban” qualifier is most readily ascribed to Millennials.
And it’s a fact: the cities of Europe are, on average, younger than E.U. member states, while the portion of 22- to 34-year-olds in the inner cities of the 50 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas has been growing steadily since the 1990s, and decreases the further away one gets. Several factors have been put forth to explain this “youthification” (Markus Moos) of cities despite the ageing of the population as a whole: Millennials aged 25–34, pushed by shifts in labor markets and income levels, changing lifestyles (longer studies, later marriages, etc.) and an increased preference for a higher-density environment served by public transit, are choosing to live in cities, where previous generations were more readily opting for single-family homes in the suburbs. Thus, according to demographer Dowell Myers, American cities reached “Peak Millennial” in 2015.
So why speak of popular belief? Because this notion linked to Millennials conjures up the image of a young person living in the high-density inner city of a large metropolis. What the above figures reveal, however, is that this increased concentration of young people happens within an urban space that is in fact much larger than the dense downtown core. This space includes near and far peripheries, recently agglomerated to the city through a process of periurbanization and which, in the past, would not necessarily have been considered urban. The image of the urban Millennial therefore applies only to a specific group of urban youth — the most privileged fringe. Above all, it corresponds to those who the media have dubbed the “supermobile,” i.e., young college graduates with above-average earnings. Thus, 73% of Americans aged 25 to 34 holding a Bachelor’s degree were living in large or medium-sized cities in 2011, compared to 67% in 1980.
This link between the level of education/income and the ability to settle in a city extends well beyond the Millennial generation: in North America, individuals working in the knowledge-based or service sector are more likely to live in higher density areas than those in manufacturing or trades occupations (Markus Moos).
If not all young people are living in the central areas of cities, can we at least say the majority aspire to do so? Not really, if we are to believe the statistics: in the United States, more young people (29%) wish to live in the suburbs than members of Generation X (25%). Accordingly, 529,000 Americans aged 25 to 29 moved from cities to suburbs in 2014, compared to just 426,000 the other way around, not to mention the neo-rural movement taking place in developed countries, where more and more young people are choosing to leave the city to settle in the country.
Finally, it is too easy to confuse the age effect with the generational effect: the current aspirations of Millennials are not set in stone, and while some currently dream of moving to the city, there is nothing to say they won’t change their minds after they become parents or reach the age of 40.