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Another day, another flawed demographics study

This time, it's a study commissioned by the APA (American Planning Association) itself. Titled "Investing in place for economic growth and competitiveness" the study is subtitled "Two generations' view on the future of communities: millennials, boomers & new directions for planning and economic development." It was released this week in concert with APA's annual conference.

I suppose there will be no end to press and studies in regards to so-called millennials and baby boomers. A therapist would probably tell me to get over it, since it's a losing battle to fight this framing. But let me just say: I'm not ready to get over it yet. Instead, I'll continue to beat the drum on my own three themes:

  • The "generational" framing that is so common is lazy journalism
  • The data is misleading at best, and outright erroneous at worst
  • The continued emphasis on these two generations does a great disservice to planning and development

Having repeated my issues, which I've written about here and here before, let me just say that the actual goals of this study and many similar studies are goals that I share. Investing in local economies, place, walking, biking, transit: I'm a fan. I want more of those things. I want more people to want more of those things.

But here's the thing: I believe we should operate with actual data, not what we hope or believe to be true. Anyone can start with a conclusion and work backwards to find supporting data for that conclusion. What I'm interested is what is factual. I believe that as advocates of walkable, bike-friendly communities we have more than enough solid data to support our aims. We don't need to invent anything to support it.

More importantly, I don't think we should over-state or mis-represent what the market desires. Plenty of people want suburbia or rural lifestyles and always will - that's ok. That desire doesn't invalidate what I want, or what others want. I have no problems trying to show people the benefits (hell, I've written a book about it) but I don't believe we should make up data or create false framing that isn't there to support our desires. But then, that's just me - I'm not interested in snake oil.

I think what urban advocates need to ask is, if only 20% (to pick a number out of the hat) of the market really wants walkability, is that ok? Are we happy with that? After all, in most regions in the US, a 20% market share would be a giant leap from what exists today for true urbanity.

Let's unpack this study a bit.

First, on generational framing.

The study purports to focus on "Millennials and Active Boomers." I actually love this note from the study: "(The intervening Gen X cohort, aged 35 to 49, was also included.)" Parenthetically it's nice that the researchers included this 1/3 of the population - how thoughtful and rigorous. Of course, this merely continues a common media theme that  "Millennials and Active Boomers" are the only two age groups of people that matter for cities and developers. And, if you believe that, you'll twist the data to support that conclusion.

In the study, the researchers labeled Millennials as being 21-34 years old and Active Boomers as 50 to 65. The former isn't terrible (at least it's not a 20 year span), but the latter is a bit strange. If you go by birth ranges that would put it as 1949-1964. Neither of those correspond well with the demographic breakdowns commonly in use, which I admittedly think are nuts. It's never made much sense to me to lump in people born in 1962, for example, with those born in 1946, as if they share the same influences and desires. My older siblings were born between 1958 and 1963, so I have a bit of personal experience in this arena.

So what to use then, if not those dates? If were are to categorize entire groups of people who live in vastly different geographies and from entirely different backgrounds, I'd suggest narrower timeframes would be wiser. I like to use decades, since it's at least somewhat more plausible, and it's free of judgment calls. "Well, JFK was killed in 1963 so we have to end the boomers in that year - it's clearly a marker." Nonsense, I say - we can come up with hundreds of theoretical markers if we want to and argue about them until the cows come home.

Second, let's look at the data itself.

First, it should be noted that the polling is skewed toward those with more education. It only polled people 21-65, and with 2 years of college education. The study states that "additional oversamples in North Carolina and Georgia were also part of the study. " Without details I can't say exactly what that means, but the pool was only about 1,300 people. Just as a reference, about 58% of adults have some college and only 31% a Bachelor's degree. So, it's fair to say a sizable chunk of the population isn't represented in this data.

Here are a few key pieces from the study:

Contrary to many conventional reviews of intergenerational relations, there is more commonality than conflict in what Millennials and Active Boomers are seeking from a community 

Kevin's comment: You mean, people are people, and actually want the same things? The Millennials aren't some strange breed of human that wants to walk and bike?

Communities that are successful in this climate are those who embrace an economic development strategy centered around issues of place, access, affordability, and innovation.  

Kevin's comment: I AGREE

Once-a-month use for transit doubled when comparing today (26 percent) with the future (52 percent); use of a bike at least once a month nearly doubled between today (14 percent) and the future (26 percent). Findings showed use of their own cars dropping 7 percentage points between today (91 percent) and the future (84 percent).  

Kevin's comment: This seems encouraging on it's face, but once a month? Seriously? If I only walked or biked once a month that hardly qualifies me as living a walkable lifestyle.

I actually thought this nugget was one of the most interesting items from the study:

Also, 39 percent of those from urban areas, 29 percent from small towns, and 23 percent from suburbs and rural communities also said they wanted their primary method of transportation in the future to be something other than their own car. 

Kevin's comment: I find this interesting on a couple of levels. First off, it shows the continued dominance of the car, even for people in urban areas. We may debate the reasons for that (like the lack in the marketplace of places to live where you don't need one), but it's interesting. And, the fact that it declines precipitously isn't really a shock, but it does show the disparity between urban, small town and rural that is common to anyone with observation skills.

This map of most-desired cities will make my friend Howard Blackson proud:

Finally, let's tackle the over-emphasis of these two "generations"

I care what these studies and other media state because they point people toward action. And, if they're not rigorous enough, that action will end up not just misguided but damaging. Cities are not just about young people and retirees. We need to plan for and provide housing, recreation and more for everyone. Even if the data showed that 90% of the population fit those two demographic categories, we still need to plan for the other 10%.

But here's the thing: the data doesn't show that.

For today's purposes, I picked one popular "Millennials" city at random to look at the data: Austin, TX. I used 2010 census data, and broke age groups down into decades as I described above. If you want to use "generational" language, you can roughly look at the data this way:

  • Age 10-19  Young Millennial (1990-2000)
  • Age 20-29 Old Millennial (1980-1990)
  • Age 30-39 Young GenX (1970-1980)
  • Age 40-49 Old GenX (1960-1970)
  • Age 50-59 Young Boomer (1950-1960)
  • Age 60-69 Old Boomer (1940-1950)
  • Age 70-79 Young Greatest Gen (1930-1940)
  • Age 80+ Old Greatest Gen (1920-1930)

My goal is to look at the actual population data. Why? Because as a planner (or a developer) I want to know what the real market potential is, and understand who my customers are. Here are the numbers for the city of Austin and then the Austin metropolitan region:

City of Austin total: 790,390

  • Age 0-9  108,389
  • Age 10-19  94,210
  • Age 20-29 175,494
  • Age 30-39  139,622
  • Age 40-49  102,083
  • Age 50-59  85,266
  • Age 60-69  48,310
  • Age 70-79  21,909
  • Age 80+  15,107

Metropolitan Austin total: 1,362,416

  • Age 0-9  205,642
  • Age 10-19  181,162
  • Age 20-29  242,707
  • Age 30-39  236,211
  • Age 40-49  191,968
  • Age 50-59  150,628
  • Age 60-69  88,444
  • Age 70-79  40,683
  • Age 80+  24,971

A quick scan of that data shows no substantial dip in population for people in their 30's and 40's, as so many narratives would have you believe. In fact, in the metropolitan region the population in 2010 of people in their 30's and 40's was larger than people in their teens and 20's. Here's that "generational" breakdown for those of you in need of the shorthand:

City of Austin:

  • Millennials:  269,704
  • Gen X:  241,705
  • Boomers: 133,576
  • Greatest Gen: 37,016

Metro Austin:

  • Millennials: 423,869
  • Gen X: 428,179
  • Boomers: 239,072
  • Greatest Gen: 65,654

Now, some of you might quibble at the breakdown of the latter. It's arbitrary, or this year should go with this category or another. You're slicing it wrong.

Exactly my point. It's totally arbitrary. Just like how other people use the definitions.

But what we do know by looking at this data, again in a city that is theoretically a draw to young people, is that there is a substantial market potential of people in their 30's and 40's. Austin metro has more people in their 40's than in the 10-19 age group. That seems like a big deal to me, and something we should study and talk about a LOT more.

Again, I actually support the goals and findings of much of this study. But I won't suffer bad data and bad framing. Doing so is a dis-service to the public, city leaders and developers who miss out on key elements of the total market.

Can we start using real data please? Pretty please?

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