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A Millennial Exodus from America’s Cities?

Breaking down the living preferences of younger Americans

From the COVID-19 pandemic altering work patterns such that many Americans are leaving cities for more spacious environs to a spate of powerful narratives like Grace Olmstead’s new treatise on younger Americans moving back to the rural communities they were once encouraged to leave, considerable focus has been paid of late to Millennial Americans moving to small towns and the rural countryside. These narratives make sense. Research has regularly shown that both soci0-economic opportunities and values in these areas are very strong, and similar to those in urban areas.

The question that remains unanswered, however, is how widespread this sylvan and small-town Main Street USA ideal is for younger Americans. New survey data collected in the midst of the pandemic make it unquestionably clear that Millennials are deeply split in their choices, but that, contrary to many narratives which describe them as overwhelming urbanites, big skies and small towns are very much desired by a significant number of younger Americans,

Data from a poll of over 1,400 people sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and Reality Check Insights—fielded after the November 2020 elections, with COVID-19 vaccines on the way and working from home a norm for many—reveal cities are in fact generally out of favor for the bulk of Americans, with rural dreams being ascendant. A plurality of Americans, 38 percent, would move to a small town or rural area if they could pick anywhere to live in the country. Another third, 33 percent, would opt to move to a suburb of some sort, and just under a quarter, 24 percent, would want to live in a city.

With respect to Millennials—those Americans who are today between 25 and 40 who are out of college and may have both careers and families—the numbers look a bit different. But despite a deviation from the national norm, the popular narratives of moving to hinterlands is absolutely borne out in the data, as a significant number of younger Americans, 26 percent, would like to end up in small-town or rural America. Another 39 percent of Millennials want to head for the suburbs, and 33 percent would be interested in cities. Younger Millennials presumably need to be near cities for work and because it is often easier to make social connections in urban centers, while older Millennials may romanticize suburbs as they are often better for children, with better infrastructures to support families, from parks and playgrounds to schools.

There are, however, some notable cleavages in the data that deserve mention. The first, understandably, is that married Millennials are more likely to want to move out to the country, with 31 percent, compared to 21 percent of singles. As cities have long been the site of the unmarried looking to meet and mate, this is understandable. Having children in the household turns out to not be as impactful, though, in terms of compelling some to settle in rural areas. Both a quarter of families with and without children under 18 state that they would like to move to rural America; children in and of themselves are not impacting the drive to move out of cities the way marriage does. What the data do show is that children appear to push families out of the cities and into the suburbs, as Millennial families with children would prefer to live in suburbs compared to cities and small towns by a ratio of two to one.

A few other factors are impactful in shaping attitudes about where to live. Politics plays a significant role, with liberals diverging from the rest of the nation. Large numbers of conservatives (40 percent) and moderates (32 percent) would like to move to the country, compared to just 10 percent of liberal identifiers. In contrast, the plurality of liberals—46 percent—aspire to live in cities, compared to a much lower number of both conservatives (15 percent) and moderates (29 percent). It should come as little surprise that voting outcomes reflect these realities as well.

Education level is also noteworthy here. In the post-COVID-19 world, the thrust among the most formally educated is away from cities and into areas with more space and air—and often affordability—rural and suburban America. Higher formal attainment among Millennials has little impact on the overall numbers looking to move to the country, which is about 21 percent, a bit lower than the 26 percent of those without a college degree. However, the data show that the those with the highest education attainment do not all want to be in cities; just 30 percent want to be in the cities, while 48 percent of those with college degrees or higher want to live in the suburbs.

Finally, racial differences are pronounced here as well. For black Millennials, rural America holds little allure, with just 7 percent stating that they would like to reside there. Cities are far more desirable at 38 percent, but the plurality want to reside in suburbs at 47 percent. White Millennials look notably different—a third pine for small towns and rural areas, while another third would ideally reside in suburbia. Just under a third of white Millennials would ideally settle in cities. Hispanics, on the other hand, look more like the national average with over a quarter, 27 percent, ideally living in the country and the remainder split between the suburbs, 36 percent, and cities, 38 percent. So, split by race and ethnicity, there are some real differences, but nevertheless sizable numbers of Millennials idealize a small town or rural lifestyle.

In short, Millennials are very much interested in living in rural or small town environs, along with suburban areas. This is very much in opposition to regular assertions that Millennial interest in cities is not faddish and that their preference for urban living is not changing. Sizable numbers of younger Americans do want to remain in cities, and factors such as race, education, and politics do play roles in shaping these preferences, but the data are quite clear: No one conurbation is dominant among Millennials, and these younger Americans do prefer, collectively, to be outside of cities and do not long for a dense, expensive urban future.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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