Common Place   /   November 12, 2014

The Millennials Are Coming, But Who Cares?

Stephen Assink

Ready or not, 80 million millennials are coming. Born between 1980 and 2000, the largest generation in American history is leaving home (or moving back in), and everyone is watching.

For some time now, cultural commentators across the web have been intent on understanding the inner life of millennials, however harrowing that might be. Through stories on their engagement with technology or work, the goal of most articles has been to predict Generation Y’s future impact. In fact, there have even been stories about stories on millennials. (With all the attention that millennials are garnering, I can see why, as one myself, some would label us narcissists.)

Through it all, one notable conversation follows the movement of millennials back to cities, a trend that has already received a great deal of press over the past year. Recently, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times discussed a new report by City Observatory that highlights this urban migration:

As young people continue to spurn the suburbs for urban living, more of them are moving to the very heart of cities — even in economically troubled places like Buffalo and Cleveland. The number of college-educated people age 25 to 34 living within three miles of city centers has surged, up 37 percent since 2000, even as the total population of these neighborhoods has slightly shrunk.

Depending on the perspective, commentary varies on the social implications. Some fear for the displacement of the urban poor through gentrification. Others worry that this shift will mark the last gasp in the protracted death of the small town. Transportation experts wonder if the millennials' lack of interest in driving means the death of the car culture. Yet the bulk of the dialogue centers on the potential economic boom in the form of innovative products, new business, and the consumer power that millennials could bring to their cities. Again Miller:

“There is a very strong track record of places that attract talent becoming places of long-term success,” said Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and author of “Triumph of the City.” “The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way.” For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.

Following Richard's Florida's creative class argument, cities are encouraged to do what they can to attract young people to neighborhoods by providing amenities such as coffee shops, bars, bookstores, restaurants, organic grocery stores, condos, and even new forms of transportation. Or as The Atlantic's Citylab puts it, cities should aim to look like Brooklyn.

Certainly, part of a city's attractiveness are its cultural offerings, and capitalizing on them makes economic sense. Yet, focusing on Generation Y's consumption patterns biases the conversation. First, the millennials that cities want are primarily understood as educated, mobile consumers with ample disposable income. They are not to be confused with Jen Silva’s working class young adults who are often jobless, isolated, and nominally educated—a group that does not fit neatly into the prevailing economic narrative surrounding urban revival.

Second, the urban condition largely becomes a matter of lifestyle or taste, a habitation predicated on the individual’s drive for self-actualization. Cities themselves, as urban historian Lewis Mumford frames it, “become consumable, indeed expendable.” Catering to the wallets of urban millennials reinforces the notion that fulfillment is largely about gratification or self-actualization via commercial consumption. Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart labeled this cultural motif as expressive individualism—the desire not for self-disciplined material acquisition but the endless experience of novelty and technological wizardry. Not surprisingly, experiences for millennials matter more than the typical American dream of a house in the suburbs.

Once the millennials have arrived, the challenge for city leaders is to find ways to engage these new denizens as citizens as much as consumers. Collectively tackling tough urban issues like broken schools, equitable access to healthy food, and growing inequality requires strong civic involvement. Historically, institutions such as churches, volunteer organizations, and business societies facilitated this action. But with the decline of religious affiliation and even volunteerism among the young, what institutions will fill in the gap?

Fortunately, the dynamism of cities can facilitate the remaking of social bonds and groups—a phenomenon explored here on Common Place—and, in general, millennials do possess tremendous energy, creativity, and a strong desire to help others. Yet, will those emerging bonds be created by consumerism and individual desires, as the current conversation seems to suggest, or will millennials coalesce around a commitment to place and the common good?

At the same time, we millennials will need to reckon with our own values and desires. Granted, we are known to be socially aware and more tolerant of other lifestyles, as fellow writer Hannah Seligson notes:

Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Through my own experience, my peers often speak of our generation’s commitment to social justice and equity, and I do know many people my age doing great work. Yet can tolerance motivate us to assume the kind of long-term commitment that cities need to face their most pressing problems? We are, after all, the generation that is fueling the rise of a form of libertarianism that valorizes the individual above all.

Whether the demographic trends are good or bad, millennials are going to continue to flock to cities. Cities should be doing what they can to welcome and encourage us while preparing for the inevitable challenges. Significantly, they will need to figure out how to transform their new residents into an active citizenry.

Finally, as millennials join in on the urban dialogue happening across the country, we too will need assess our own commitments and make sure that all members of our generation— especially the ones stuck in broken systems—are included. Therefore, the pressing questions are not what we will buy or whether we will bring innovation, or even which cities will “win” the millennial sweepstakes. Rather, the most important question confronting us and our new communities is will we even care about them?