Saturday, August 9, 2008

Millennials and the Future of American Suburbs

In his autobiographical film, Avalon, Barry Levinson captured the impact of America’s suburban exodus on his large and fractious family. He seemed to suggest that the weakening of this previously close-knit family was due to their dispersal to the suburbs rather than the social upheavals of the sixties that he also captured so well in the other two films in his Baltimore trilogy—Diner and Liberty Heights. But while it is true that from 1940 to 1960 the percentage of Americans living in suburbs doubled—from 15 to 30 percent, the weakening of family ties had more to do with the cycles of generational archetypes than the place where those families were raised. Members of the Silent generation, like Levinson, battled with the new, idealistic values of their Baby Boomer children and the tensions captured most popularly in the TV sitcom, All in the Family, were simply too great to maintain America’s idyllic memory of family life in the ‘50s.

But the very same generational trends that pulled American families apart in the late 1960s and ‘70s, is about to return full cycle to the attitudes and beliefs of a “civic” era very much like the 1950s and early 1960s, with equally profound impacts on where and how we live. America’s largest, most diverse generation in its history—Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003—are becoming adults, entering the workforce, getting married and settling down. Where and how they choose to live and raise their families will be the single most important force in shaping America’s housing and communities for the next two decades.

Just like their GI Generation grand-parents or great grand-parents, Millennials have a deep and abiding interest in the communities they participate in. Growing up, this interest was captured by the enormous popularity of social networks, such as MySpace and FaceBook. Over eighty percent of all Millennials have a personal site on at least one of these networks.

The same desire to connect to their friends and build better communities is evidenced in the volunteer participation rates of Millennials, especially in comparison to their older Gen X siblings or parents. Eighty percent of Millennials performed some sort of community service while in high school, triple the rate of high school Gen Xers. Not only do seventy percent of college-age Millennials report having done voluntary community service, but 85 percent of them consider it an effective way to solve this nation’s problems. It is no coincidence that the candidate with the most appeal to Millennials, Senator Obama, issued a call for mandatory programs of service in high school and college in return for financial assistance with higher education during the week leading up to America’s most patriotic celebration, July 4. As he stated in his speech in Colorado Springs, “Community service is at the core of his vision for a new America.”

Now the first initial indications of how this sense of community will impact Millennial behavior as they enter young adulthood are available and it contains good news for America’s suburbs. According to survey data from Frank N. Magid Associates, America’s leading entertainment and media research firm, once Millennial marry their firm preference is to live in a single-family home, and not in a typical urban setting of lofts, condos or apartments. Almost half of “settled” Millennials own their own home, only about a quarter are renting the place they are living in. This represents a significant change from the situation of Millennials of about the same age (mid-twenties) who are working but single. About half of this group reports renting, either alone or with others, and only 13 percent own their own homes. About a quarter of them are living with their parents, which often earns them disdainful comments from older generations. Early evidence would suggest that the “return to the nest” phenomenon has more to do with the economics of graduating from college with large student loans unpaid and entry level pay at their first job then it does with any lack of energy or drive for success among Millennials.

But there is one more generational trait that portends well for America’s suburbs. Millennials like their parents. Unlike Boomers who moved as far away as they could from their family home in order to “find themselves” and express their own unique values, or Gen Xers who reacted to their relatively unloving upbringing (think Married…with Children vs. Leave it to Beaver) by rejecting every aspect of their childhood, including leafy lawns and spacious housing, Millennials like their parents and their way of life. Even Millennials who grew up in more urban settings are optimistic that they will do even better in life than their parents, including owning a nice house in the suburbs with good schools and safe streets.

America’s love of suburban living continued long after the time in our history captured in Avalon. In the 1970s, the racial tensions and general deterioration of central cities pushed more Americans into the suburbs, with a plurality (38%) living there according to the 1970 census and 45% by 1980. By the time the last members of the Millennial generation were being born, around 2000, fully half of all Americans were living either in older suburbs or the new exurbs that surrounded them. America’s desire for its own plot of land will continue well into this century as well. Millennials will want to stay close to the parents they love and live the way they have become accustomed to. Levinson’s experience growing up in Baltimore may never return, but the tight-knit families sharing the joys of family and friends will return as he longed for in Avalon, once more, thanks to the civic spirit and community orientation of America’s next great generation, the Millennials.

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