Has Philly reached peak millennial? It’s going to be hard to find out

Experts say even the Census can’t help track suburban flight that easily.

This is going to be the year some of your friends start talking more about the suburbs and schools, and if not this year maybe the next, or in 2019. It’s getting to be that time.

Millennials are growing up, so much so that talk has begun of Philly and other cities reaching “peak millennial.” The oldest of the generation that has rejuvenated cities, including Philadelphia, are hitting their mid-30s and reaching a turning point: Will they stay enchanted with Philly, looking past the tepid business environment and still-struggling school system? Or will those with the means leave, heading off to the suburbs and higher-rated schools or metro areas like New York and Washington DC that tend to offer a more high-paying jobs?

These next few years will decide, and the challenge for the city will not only be enticing millennials to stick around but tracking whether they’re staying or going.    

The actual impact of millennials

Following story after story of millennial boom times, there’s lately been a push back about the generation’s significance. Its effect on cities has been discounted nationally and here in Philly, with births and immigrants being credited for growth. This is true. Especially in the most recent years, the city would be dealing with a population loss if not for immigration. But over a larger period, the numbers bear millennials — some of whom are immigrants — have significantly influenced growth and change in the city.

In 2005, 20-to-34 year-olds made up about 20 percent of Philly’s overall population. The share had risen to 26 percent by 2015.   

Not only that, the increase isn’t just a bounce caused by the millennial generation being so much larger than previous generations. For the sake of simplicity in dealing with Census numbers, we’ll count Philadelphia’s millennials in this article as people who were between the ages of 20-to-34 in the 2015 data, those born between 1981 and 1995 (the full millennial population would include people born from about 1980 to 1999). In 2005, Philadelphia had about 300,000 people who were born in that timeframe. They were between the ages of 10 and 24 at the time. As of 2015, the year of the most recent Census American Community Surveys data, Philadelphia had 415,000 people born between 1981 and 1995.

That’s 100,000 or so millennials who didn’t live in Philly in the latter part of their childhood or early stages of adulthood who live here now. Aside from young children, few other age groups saw a population increase in the same timeframe. So millennials did come to Philly from elsewhere, attracted by jobs, college choices, inexpensive housing, restaurants or who knows exactly what.

Even if the number of millennials goes back to around 300,000 as the generation ages the next 10 to 15 years, the population loss would hurt Philadelphia. From restaurants to outdoor cafes and bars to the already-saturated real estate market, the development has occurred in part to accommodate millennials. Should an exodus happen, the city, businesses and others with skin in the game would have to hope a similar amount of young people from the next generation, which is similar in size to the millennials but might not have the same preferences, replaces them.

“The two groups that have really fueled the population increase the last decade have been immigrants and young adults,” said Larry Eichel, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative. “If we have fewer of either it’s going to be hard to sustain the population increase unless some other group comes along.”

Why they’ll go, why they’ll stay

At this point, every major city is reckoning with a few theories showing why the millennial boom could fade, leaving tax dollars and empty apartment buildings in their wake. A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Dowell Myers outlined the major reasons for why millennials came to cities in the first place and will now, he believes, flee to the suburbs. The gist? Millennials didn’t have much of a choice other than to crowd into cities in part because of the financial crisis.

The poor housing and job market, he argues, resulted in millennials clustering around the few jobs and residences available. Now that the country has mostly recovered they will be able to step out of their entry-level jobs and away from crowded, urban housing, perhaps buying their own homes. In terms of surveys showing millennials are major fans of walkability and biking around cities, Myers argues they’re displaying preferences for the places they live right now and not a change in attitude so strong it could convince them to forgo the perks of suburban life.       

Philadelphia has other problems, too, like the state of its schools. Pew’s survey of the city’s millennials in 2013 and 2016 indicated doubt about raising kids in the city for this reason.   

Jobs were another top concern. Philly has long been considered a place where college graduates can get their first or second job. But when they want to move up to higher-achieving positions, they have to move elsewhere. The city could also lose out on talent because of a late recovery period in the suburbs. Philly returned to pre-recession employment levels in 2013, but most of the area suburbs are just now reaching that level, offering job opportunities that weren’t around during the millennial growth period.

Philadelphia does have a few advantages other big cities and the neighboring suburbs don’t. For one thing, it’s cheap. Housing prices here are lower than in bordering suburban counties like Montgomery, Bucks and Chester, as well as cities like New York and Washington DC. Crime, often cited as a concern for people of all ages who move away from Philadelphia, has been going down consistently.  

Plus, some experts do believe in the surveys and data illustrating millennials’ unique preferences for city life. A study by City Observatory found millennials were 50 percent more likely than the rest of the general population to live in cities. When Generation X and late Baby Boomers were in their 20s and early 30s, they were between about 10 and 30 percent more likely.    

The difficulty of keeping score

As Philly millennials get older and make decisions about their futures, there’s going to be one major problem: Nobody will be able to reliably tell whether an alarming number are moving away.

Part of this is because little research locally or nationally has been done on previous generations’ moves to the suburbs once they reached their mid-30s to better predict what could happen. The questions being asked now were not asked about Generation X-ers in 1995.

Pew, for instance, surveyed Philadelphia millennials in 2013, 2015 and 2016 about how likely they felt they’d be leaving in Philadelphia in the next five or 10 years. Between 40-50 percent of respondents said they were likely to leave. The number sounds jarring. But is 50 percent better than a young person would have said 20 years ago? The organization never asked that question until 2013 — nobody did — so Eichel’s not sure.

In another 10 years, Census data could provide a look at how a large chunk of Philly’s millennial population — it’ll be ages 30-45 — will have changed from these 2015 numbers. But that’s 10 years down the road. Many who have decided to leave or stay will have already made their move.

“It’s going to be very hard to document one way or the other,” Eichel said.

The city is trying to be proactive in getting millennials to stay, having rolled out initiatives and policy addressing schools and crime in recent years. But the job market continues to lag — 1.1 percent growth rate since 2010 — and recent decisions like the salary history bill probably don’t endear the city to businesses.      

In January, the Mayor’s Office announced the re-formation of the Millennial Advisory Committee, a group with a goal of improving city life for millennials first started in the last few months of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration. Nicole Allen White, the group’s leader, said they want to make Philadelphia a viable place to live for those with the financial means to leave and those without. A native Philadelphian, she’s planning to stay in Philly with her husband and notes the “vast majority” of her friends are too.  

Hers is one anecdote, many of which have been told over and over in Philly since millennials hit young adulthood. Some are stories about falling in love with the city and never wanting to leave. Others are the typical refrains of suburban life offering a better environment for families.   

The actual trends won’t be apparent to Philadelphia for a while. But unlike the last few years, when the city could confidently claim millennials were fueling a boom, the real test has begun.

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