Millennials Are Behind Suburbia's Big Comeback

Rumors of the death of the suburbs are greatly exaggerated

This article appears in the October 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The suburbs are dead. Millennials want nothing to do with the soulless, auto-dependent, resource-wasting, non-inclusive sprawling cultural wastelands of single-family detached homes. The future is in the city. Dense, diverse, transit-based, 24-7 urban living is where it’s at and will be.

Wait a minute. We’re getting updated reports from the field. This just in: The narrative has changed. Millennials do want to live in the burbs. It turns out that some of them want the same thing their parents and grandparents wanted — a house in a nice quiet neighborhood, some kids to put in it, decent schools to send those kids to and a little patch of green lawn for the kids’ swing set and wading pool.

Some societal shifts in attitudes are tough to spot until after they’ve happened. This one, however, could be seen from miles away, for four reasons.

• Sweeping generalizations and stereotypes about entire generations aren’t universal to every member, or even many of them. Suggesting that because a group of people share a birthday (or a birth decade), they also must share the same opinions and tastes is an absurd idea to anyone who looks at the numbers, or just looks around. It’s often forgotten that many millennials never grew up in or migrated to the big city in the first place.

• Would-be opinion-shapers have been deriding the suburbs and the people who live in them for about as long as people have been happily defecting to them.

• Generations don’t stay the same age. Very few people are the same at 35 as they were at 22. The delights of urban living fade. Comfort and convenience become more attractive. Having kids changes priorities, making the proximity of a school and a bit of elbow room more important than how many hip restaurants and trendy bars are within walking distance of your apartment.

• Urban living is expensive. The young, even those working jobs with lavish compensations, often will do only slightly better than treading water financially. Those hoping for some upward economic mobility will need to look to the burbs to accomplish that.

None of this is a surprise to most people, but now the national media are catching on. The Wall Street Journal: “American Suburbs Swell Again as a New Generation Escapes the City.” The Atlantic: “The Future of the City Is Childless: America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.” Mother Jones: “Millennials Love the Burbs.”

This is not to predict end times for the American urban renaissance in places like Seattle. It’s not an either/or proposition, although urbanists have cast it that way with the unveiled implication that the suburban option is the wrong choice. Growing regions like the Puget Sound and the country need both. In fact, a choice is necessary as cities like Seattle become more expensive to live in and more of a hassle to get to, for work or play. Seattle is banking on having a growing supply of next-generation young urbanites and well-off empty-nesters and retirees to supply tech companies with employees and all those restaurants and bars with customers.

But Seattle’s resolute march toward its vision of Hong-Kong-on-Elliott-Bay opens up new opportunities for the suburbs to develop as their own employment, commercial, cultural and entertainment centers, and not just as smaller versions of and adjuncts to Seattle. They’ll be their own bedroom communities, not Seattle’s.

The millennials may put their own stamp on the suburbs, much as preceding generations did, but they won’t kill them. They might even — to their chagrin, resignation or relief — find that life in the land of the minivan and the soccer field isn’t such a bad fate after all.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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