Over at 538, Ben Casselman offers up a provocative, contrarian article “Think Millennials prefer cities?  Think Again.” He claims that newly released census data show that, contrary to the “all the hipsters are moving to cities” meme, millennials–like previous generations–are actually migrating towards the suburbs.

This is a case where we think the usually reliable 538 gets it wrong.

Here’s the key problem:  Casselman’s data looks only the subset of migration between suburbs and cities in metropolitan areas–that is he only counts people who move from the suburbs of a metro to the principal city of a metro (and vice versa). He ignores the people that move to city centers from the city centers of other metropolitan areas, from non-metropolitan areas and from abroad. So Casselman’s tabulation only looks at whether people are moving from Scarsdale or Bethesda to Brooklyn (or vice versa).  A young adult moving from the central city of another metro (like Washington DC or Portland to Brooklyn) or from a rural area or another country doesn’t count in this tabulation. As it turns out, this makes a big difference.

To get a more comprehensive picture of migration, we’ve pulled together data showing all the twenty-something migrants to principal cities and all the migrants to suburbs, and classified them by place of origin (where they lived in the previous year).  The top panel of our table shows the complete data on moves to cities and suburbs; the bottom panel presents an addenda showing only the data on city-suburb moves that 538 used.  (Like Casselman, we’ve excluded city-to-city and suburb-to-suburb moves within a metropolitan area, and non-metro to non-metro moves).

Movers to Principal Cities and to Suburbs, 2013-14

     Age Group
Destination of Move Origin of Move 20-24 25-29
To principal city From own metro suburb 436 302
From other metro suburb 118 124
From other metro principal city 277 331
From non-metro area 107 82
From abroad 104 106
All moves to principal cities 1,042 945
To suburb From own metro principal city 479 390
From other metro principal city 242 138
From other metro suburb 136 193
From non-metro area 109 74
From abroad 56 85
All moves to suburbs 1,022 880
Net migration suburb to principal city 20 65
Addenda:  City-Suburb/Suburb-City Moves Only (538 Analysis)
To principal city From own metro suburb 436 302
From other metro suburb 118 124
Suburb-to-city moves 554 426
To suburb From own principal city 479 390
From other metro principal city 242 138
City-to-suburb moves 721 528
Net migration suburb to principal city -167 -102

Source:  Current Population Survey, 2014.  Table 16.  Metropolitan Mobility, by Sex, Age, Race and Hispanic Origin, Relationship to Householder, Educational Attainment, Marital Status, Nativity, Tenure, and Poverty Status:  2013 to 2014.  Numbers in Thousands.

These data show that there was actually a net inflow of about 85,000 20 to 29 year-olds into principal cities in 2014, in contrast to Casselman’s data showing a net outflow of more than one quarter million. The difference stems from the fact that young adults moving into a metropolitan area from some other metro, or a non-metro area, or from abroad, were much more likely to live in the principal city than young adults moving within a metropolitan area.

Let’s focus for a moment on 25 to 29 year-olds moving into principal cities. It turns out that more of them come from principal cities in other metropolitan areas (331,000) than move to the principal city from suburbs in the same metropolitan area (302,000). So inter-metropolitan moves are actually more important to this demographic shift than are within metro moves.  Also notice that principal city residents moving to a different metro are about two and a half times as likely to move to a principal city in that new metro as they are to move to a suburb in the new metro–331,000 residents of principal cities in other metros moved to principal cities in a new metro; only 138,000 residents of principal cities in other metros moved to suburbs in a new metro.  Among migrants from other metropolitan areas, only those who previously lived in suburbs were more likely to move to the suburb in a new metro (and this group was far less numerous). Movers from non-metro areas and from abroad were more likely to move to the principal city than to its suburbs.

The 538 result is skewed by the fact that principal city residents are much more likely to move, period, than are suburban residents.  Among 25 to 29 year olds living in principal cities in 2013, about 9.7% moved compared to only about 6.2% of 25 to 29 year-olds living in suburbs.  Fewer suburban residents move to cities simply because fewer suburban residents move anywhere.

By looking at only a subset of movers, 538 misses several important sources of migration of young adults to central cities.  This is important because central cities often serve as a kind of port-of-entry or “Ellis Island” in metropolitan areas.  New migrants to a region from other metropolitan areas other states and other countries seem disproportionately to settle, at least initially, in central city locations.  Its also the case that better educated workers are more likely to make longer moves, and move between states and to different metropolitan areas.  As a result, city centers are disproportionately attracting well-educated young adults.  Our data show that between 2000 and 2012, the number of 25 to 34 year-olds increased twice as fast within 3 miles of the center of the central business district in the 51 largest metropolitan areas as it did outside that circle.

There’s an important technical limitation to using municipal boundaries of the largest city to separate metros into “city” and “suburb.”  Principal cities vary widely in how much of a metro area they cover.  Some like Boston and Miami are a small fraction of the urban area; others municipalities like Jacksonville and San Antonio, encompass vast swaths of low density development.  At City Observatory, we strongly prefer using radius-based measures for making metropolitan comparisons. Unfortunately, CPS migration data aren’t available at the finer geographic detail needed to perform this kind of analysis.

It must also be said that 538 has set up a bit of a straw man:  the point is not that all millennials want to live or are living in cities. The point is that preferences have demonstrably changed in favor of cities. The migration patterns of young adults today are very different from those we observed just a decade or two ago. Looking at aggregate population data–not just year-to-year moves–we noted that the probability that a 25 to 34 year old lived in a close-in urban neighborhood, relative to all metro residents quadrupled from 1990 to 2010.

In our view, Ben Casselman glosses over the really critical point about changing migration patterns:

Millennials are moving to the suburbs at a much lower rate than past generations did at the same age. In the mid-1990s, people ages 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa. Today, they’re only about a quarter more likely.

That’s a big change.  And where people move in their 20s is important because the probability of migration falls precipitously with age:  a 35 year-old is roughly half as likely to move as a 25 year-old, and that probability declines steadily with age. If principal cities are doing a better job of attracting people in their 20s, it has major ramifications for future city population and economic growth.  City population change is highly sensitive to relatively minor changes in the probability and duration of city residence of young adults:  even if they move to the suburbs as they age, the growing proportion and longer tenure of young adults in cities has a measurable and continuing impact on city demographics.

Young adults are highly mobile:  they’re voting with their feet for the kinds of metropolitan areas and neighborhoods they want to live in.  When you look at the entire sample of movers to cities and suburbs–and don’t arbitrarily narrow the analysis–the data show that young adults, especially the most well-educated, are increasingly choosing cities.