Are Millennials Moving to Cities More, or Leaving them Less?

Young adults continue to move to cities in numbers similar to those of recent decades; the difference now is they aren't leaving.

Millennials are flocking to cities, right? It certainly seems that way to many of us who live in urban areas. And we know from survey data – a great deal of which is summarized in our upcoming report, Millennials in Motion, that young people want to live in cities far more than older Americans.

But it can be devilishly hard to track how Millennials’ desire for urban living translates into actual change on the ground at a national scale. The first problem is lack of data: we tend to have the most information about population patterns within political boundaries, but those boundaries don’t always correspond well to measures of “urbanness.”

The second problem is lack of perspective. You will occasionally run into analyses like this explaining that Millennials, like most recent generations of young people, are likelier to raise families in the suburbs than in cities. No one is disputing that. For decades, the primary flow of people in their 20s has been from cities to suburbs, rather than the reverse, with the population of cities continuing to grow as a result of natural increase (more births than deaths) and immigration from rural areas and abroad. What matters, though, is whether the rate of flow has changed – are more young people moving from the suburbs to the cities than a decade or two ago?

In our research for Millennials in Motion, we dug through the Census Bureau’s annual reports of migration and geographic mobility based on the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS data do not solve our first problem, as they rely on political boundaries, but they help greatly with the second by providing a more-or-less consistent time-series that extends back, with some gaps, for several decades.

We found that there has indeed been a shift in urban-suburban migration patterns among young people aged 18 to 29, but that the change – at least of late – has been driven by a decrease in the number of young people moving from cities to suburbs. Young adults continue to move to cities in numbers similar to those of recent decades; the difference now is they aren’t leaving.

Figure 1 below shows the net urban-to-suburban[1] migration for 18 to 29 year-olds for the years for which data exist going back to 1991. Between 1991 and 1994, an average of 810,000 more young people per year moved from central cities to suburbs than vice versa. By 2010-2013, the average flow had dropped to 503,000 per year – a decline of 300,000 net city-to-suburb moves per year.

Figure 1. Net Population Flow of 18 to 29 year-olds from Central Cities to Suburbs

Migration in both directions has slowed down in recent years – not surprising given the effects of the Great Recession on household formation and Millennials’ economic health. Indeed, the average number of 18 to 29 year-olds moving from suburbs to cities has actually declined in recent years – about 9 percent fewer young people per year moved from suburbs to cities in 2010-13 than did so in 1991-94. However, the number of people migrating in the other direction – from cities to suburbs – has fallen off a cliff, declining by 22 percent, or roughly 400,000 people, over the same time period. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Migration from Cities to Suburbs and Vice Versa, 18 to 29 Year-Olds (Thousands)

While the decline in urban-to-suburban moves is in part due to declining mobility overall, it is also due to changing migration choices among urban residents. Figure 2 shows the percentage of urban residents moving to suburbs as a share of all those who move in a given year. Not surprisingly, most urban residents who change houses move somewhere else within their own city or to another city like their own. But the share of all “movers” who move to suburbs has been declining since the early 2000s and has been lower since 2006 than it was in previous decades. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Percentage of City “Movers” Who Moved to Suburbs

The conventional explanation for all this is the economy. Millennials, as we all know, are broke and living in their parents’ basements. They’re delaying marriage and childbirth as well as the establishment of new independent households. We address many of these changes – some of which aren’t nearly as dramatic as they appear – in Millennials in Motion.  But the implicit assumption in much of the commentary along these lines is that as soon as the economy recovers, things will go back to “normal” – that is, young people will choose to set up households in the suburbs to the same degree as preceding generations did. 

I am not so sure that’s a given. Indeed, it is possible that the recession has held many Millennials back from making desired moves from suburban to urban areas, just as it has held back moves in the other direction. If Millennials are, as the popular press would have it, “stuck living in their parents’ basements,” those basements are by and large located in …. the suburbs! According to a Pew Research Center report from 2010 (PDF), 54 percent of Millennials at that time lived in suburbs – a figure that’s 33 points higher than the percentage of 18 to 29 year-olds who said the suburbs were their “ideal community type” in a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year.  (By contrast, 38 percent of Millennials chose cities as their ideal community type, compared to 32 percent of Millennials who lived in central cities in 2010). It could very well be that economic recovery will liberate some Millennials to make suburb-to-city moves that they cannot currently afford.

As I noted above, there are many, many caveats associated with these data. The nature of both “central cities” and “suburbs” has changed in recent decades and will change further in the years to come.  And looking at central cities overall likely understates the changing population dynamics in core downtown areas of cities that have experienced a rapid influx of new population. But these data are consistent with the picture painted by survey data of increasing desirability of urban living among Millennials. And while it’s hard to predict the future, it is possible that the changes we’ve seen to date are only just beginning.


[1] “Central city” to “balance of metropolitan area” to be completely accurate.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.