News & Politics

There’s More Than One Type of Urban Millennial

How are they affecting cities? It's too diverse a group to say with precision.

This photograph is unrepresentative of all millennials. (Via Shutterstock.)

Millennials are often casually described as forever-single, coworking apartment-renters busy gallivanting on their trendy shared bicycles. Even though it’s obvious that most twentysomethings don’t fit this narrow definition.

“Oftentimes we use the word millennial where we’re not really talking about everyone in that age demographic,” said Washington Post Wonkblog writer Emily Badger.

On June 16, Badger discussed millennials and their cities with Rolf Pendall, the director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, at a panel assembled by the organization. Svetlana Legetic, co-founder of the millennial-centric website Brightest Young Things, introduced the two with an overview of the meteoric rise of the DC millennial.

In a room filled with youthful research assistants, a handful of baby boomers, and a pre-panel cheese plate, the two covered a wide swath of both local and national history that has plopped cities within their current metamorphoses. The Institute’s “Millennials and the Remaking of US Cities” tackled now ubiquitous topics like changing neighborhoods, millennials versus baby-boomers, and those crazy preferences millennials seem to have. But the most compelling subject was less expected: Millennials don’t always speak for all millennials.

Badger says Millennial, the capital-M term tossed about in media, is more a “code word for a particular kind of millennial.” That is, white, college-educated, upwardly-mobile ones. (Washingtonian does not capitalize the word millennial, for what it’s worth.)

Pendall and Badger pointed out that discussing millennials the way mainstream news organizations often do ignores disparities within the generation—creating fundamental issues with understanding how millennials hope to and will change cities like DC. Badger offered up the example of her own neighborhood: the at first budding, now booming H Street.

“We have this juxtaposition of millennials who are better off, who have college degrees, who’ve had the luxury of moving in,” she says. “They’re coexisting, not entirely harmoniously, with millennials of a different kind who are not going to be able to afford to continue living in the neighborhoods where their parents raised them.” Badger herself happens to be one of those college-educated, new-resident millennials.

Displacement doesn’t come down to only millennials displacing families and older residents, millennials are also displacing millennials. The Whole Foods-following hordes arriving on H Street and in Shaw may be nudging out longtime locals of the same age. Not all millennials are displacers, and not all have the economic status often associated with the generation’s buzzy name.

Today, acccording to Pendall, there are 65 million millennials living in the United States. It’s the largest generation the country has ever seen, and the most diverse. But 62 percent of those born between 1980 and 1995 are white. Also according to Pendall, of white non-Hispanic women ages 25 to 29, about 45 percent of them have attended at least four years of college. For black and Latino men this number sinks to between 15 and 20 percent. As in any generation, the opportunities presented to millennials are impacted by sex, race, and class.

“There are many, many cleavages within the millennial generation by which your life chances are either boosted by your family’s affluence or really held back by your family’s lack of income,” Pendall says. “There’s those with choices and those with fewer choices.”

Both speakers agreed the struggle is making sure those with choices don’t cause displacement with their influx of money and desire for choice in new neighborhoods.

“Can we have investment on H Street, or the 14th Street corridor, or U Street in ways that benefit the people who already live there?” Badger says. “This is the problem millennials need to solve as they remake cities.” And that means millennials as a whole, not just those tritely described as juice-toting and yoga-going. Though the District may be overrun with ambitious capital-M Millennials, it also has a population of millennials working to increase opportunity in the city. Envisioning a future built by millennials means broadening the definition and ignoring the ways mainstream millennials are often categorized.

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