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Enough about Millennials already!

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Here we go again. Last week, another study came out that purports to define the generations, and salivate at the feet of the Millennials. Entitled "Millennials in Adulthood," the study is from the widely-regarded Pew Research Center. Colleague and friend Ben Brown, writes about the study as it impacts cities:

So what does all this suggest for housing demand and community planning? With a growing population of risk-averse, cash-strapped singles, what will the impacts be on settlement patterns and housing choices built around easy credit for young families in a booming economy?

Here’s a PlaceShakers post from a year ago outlining the likely prospects for neighborhood locations, housing scales and for sale/for rent choices given the double whammy of aging Boomers and coming-of-age Millennials. And it’s worth repeating this warning from an article in the Nov./Dec. 2010 Washington Monthly by Patrick C. Doherty and Christopher Leinberger:

“Both of these huge demographic groups want something that the U.S. housing market is not currently providing: small, one-to-three-bedroom homes in walkable, transit-oriented, economically dynamic, and job-rich neighborhoods.”

Regular readers know this is a pet topic of mine. I've written here about how the actual "generational" numbers of people in the US are not as different as some would have you believe; here about not over-relying on "Millennials" and "Boomers"; and here about the actual transition going on in society.

Why do I care about this issue so much?

I don't like lazy research and journalism. I especially don't like it when it leads to bad policy and bad decisions relative to cities. And, the continued journalistic narrative about the generations and who they are/what they want is lazy and arbitrary. I fear it's going to lead decision-makers to some very bad choices when it comes to the design and planning of cities.

First, a rehash on the problem with generational differences. Instead of listening to me, how about Jon Stewart from The Daily Show last nigh? He interviews Paul Taylor, who has a new book on the same generational theme, called The Next America. The whole clip is worthy of watching, especially as you can get a sense of the absurdity of it all. But skip to the exchange at 2:54 specifically:

Stewart pointedly notes, "twenty years seems like an incredibly broad spectrum to make any kind of larger inferences about a generation.." 

Indeed, it is, and has always been.

My brother was born in 1963, which by most demographers accounts places him in the Baby Boomer category. I was born in 1969, which places me in Gen X. But for anyone taking a moment to get to know the two of us, you'd quickly find out we have much more in common than he would with someone born in 1946. We are all a little more likely to have more in common with folks within a decade of our age than those that are 12, 15 or even 18 years different. 

But, that doesn't fit the narrative that writers would like us to believe. Why do journalists, researchers & writers still comport to categories that are so easy to poke holes in? Well, laziness is one obvious reason. A second is that it makes for good story telling, and who doesn't like a good story? And for some, it clearly adds to one's sense of self-importance, and by extension your children's importance. Never mind that the facts might be different.

Mostly, it's difficult to find and parse real data. It takes work, and a removal of bias. Anyone looking to discern info about groups of people would have to dig deep into census data, psychographic research and much more. The best data collectors and analysts in urban planning/design/demography actually do this, and for that are highly sought after. 

But again - what does all this critique of generational stereotypes and research have to do with cities? 

Today the focus of most media is on how Gen Y (or Millennials) are this gigantic group of young people that are magically choosing walkable, urban environments. I've certainly used that talking point myself - I've been as guilty as those who I now lampoon.

But I think it's time to pump the brakes on this, and add a dose of reality.

Look - I absolutely believe young people are vital to walkable places. The energy, creativity and life they bring is a critical element to success. In fact, it's one of my 11 steps.

But it's not exactly rocket science as to why more young people are moving more and more to walkable places. I'd suggest three obvious factors:

  1. Economic pressures; it's just flat-out cheaper to live without a car.
  2. Cities are desirable now; in the 70's and 80's our cities were in really bad shape. Now, most are immeasurably better. It's a far easier choice to make.
  3. They’re young; It’s just easier to make changes in your life and adopt new ideas when you're in your 20's than in your 40's or 50's

When I graduated from college in 1994, American cities were just beginning their comeback after decades of disinvestment and horrific crime. It was not a simple thing at that time to buy or rent a house in an urban neighborhood and choose to live there. I'm not easily scared off, but I remember looking at apartments and homes in neighborhoods that definitely had me concerned. Now, most of those same neighborhoods are dramatically better. Buildings have been renovated, the streets are cleaner and public parks are being used by people other than vagrants. The people who bucked the trends in the 50's, 60's and 70's, and stayed in cities to fix up buildings and keep neighborhoods alive - these were the real pioneers. They are the real heroes of American cities. Today, most of us are just enjoying the spoils of those victories and trying to take it to the next level.

And, in essence, that's a big part of my beef with the generational narratives (beyond the blatant statistical flaws). Our country is filled with plenty of people in their 40's, 50's, 60’s and beyond that love city living too. They love walking to a neighborhood store or restaurant, biking with kids to the park or even taking public transit for a night out. But many are in a place in their life where it’s simply hard to uproot and make changes. If you've got two kids, a house in the suburbs and a mortgage, it's not an easy thing to sell it all and move to a walkable place. At 22, it's easy to leave college or mom and dad's house and live wherever you want to. But the reality is people have the same desires, regardless of age. We all crave the informal sociability that cities and walkable places provide. We don't need to sell this as some magical potion that only 20-somethings understand.

The bigger danger is that we believe these generational myths and look for the urban design silver bullet again. We could say: "it’s all about young people. We have to do everything for young people." And by doing so, we forget about the needs of everyone else, which by extension also means those same young people as they inevitably age. Cities that become playgrounds for young people will fall victim to the same fate as any gated subdivision that caters only to retirees.

So, enough of the silly generational narratives already. Let's get back to the business of making cities and towns that are enjoyable for everyone.

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