What’s Happening? The media often report that Boomers are flocking to cities. With their adult children finally leaving the home, Boomers are thought to be downsizing and moving into the urban core. The city is believed to offer a change of pace from their previously suburban lives.
Our Take: Contrary to media stereotypes, Boomers are actually less likely to live in urban neighborhoods than previous generations of older people. From 1990 to 2018, the share of 54- to 72-year-olds who are urban residents fell steadily from 21.6% to 17.8%. While this age-bracket has grown as a share of all urban-dwellers, that's just because Boomers are a large generation. But the share of this age-bracket that is living in cities is declining. In fact, at every phase of life Boomers have been less likely than other generations, at the same age, to prefer urban residence. This trend marks a generational shift from the Lost to the G.I. to the Silent and then to the Boomer.
boomers aging in the Suburbs and exburbs
Jed Kolko's recent article in the NYT, The Myth of the Urban Boomer, does an excellent analysis of Census data that basically corroborates what I have been saying for some time now. See "Reports of Suburbia's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated," wherein I make a similar point: Since 2010, the 65+ population in the outer suburbs (+5.7% annually) and in the exurbs (+4.3%) has grown more than twice as fast as the population in the inner urban core (+2.2%). The media seem to believe the opposite, that Boomers--especially affluent Boomers--are increasingly likely to move into urban cores. (See "Boomers Splurge on Luxe, Urban Apartment Rentals."). But no, this is not true--not even for affluent Boomers.
So let's start again from the top. Yes, Boomers are a relatively large generation. It therefore follows that whichever age bracket they find themselves in will likely grow as a share of total population. It likewise follows that the 54-to-72 age bracket (the demographic Baby Boom in 2018, when this analysis was made) is today expanding as a share of total population almost everywhere--nationally, in rural counties, in the suburbs, and in cities. But, at the same time, it is also true that the share of everyone in this age bracket living in rural or suburban locations has recently been rising and the share living in cities has been falling.
Get it? Over the last three decades, in fact, the share of Americans age 54-to-74 who live in urban neighborhoods (defined by population density) has steadily fallen, from 21.6% in 1990 to 17.8% in 2018. Since 2000, that age bracket's urban share is down 11%. Meanwhile, for the age bracket now occupied by Xers, its urban share is down only 2%. And for Millennials, it's down only 4%. Keep in mind that, lately, even nonaffluent young adults have been moving away from cities. (See "Biggest Metros Spawning Greatest Inequality.")
origins of media stereotype
Why do so many people suppose that Boomers are increasingly moving into cities? In part, perhaps, because they see that a rising share of this age bracket rents rather then owns its home. (In the Xer and Millennials age brackets, of course, the rental shares have been rising even faster.) That means Boomers must be living more in cities, right? Wrong. As the Census data clearly indicate, rising Boomer rentals have occurred entirely outside of cities--in the suburbs and in rural areas. Ditto for multi-unit housing. Yes, Boomers are increasingly moving into multi-unit buildings... but not in cities.
Bottom line: They graying of America translates mostly into the graying of America's small towns and suburbs, not into the graying of its cities.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.