Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: City of Millennials

The Thursday posting from my week long blogfest at DMN:

City of Millennials

On page 180 of The Next 100 Million, Joel Kotkin cites two authors I am very familiar with, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais and their book Millennial Makeover. As he points out, the Millennial generation, those about 30 years old and younger (although generational boundaries are very hazy), are family-oriented. He uses this citation to underscore his point about a return to the cloudy notion of family values.

By page 196, he is discussing the family-friendly nature of gated communities. What about the families on the other side of the gate? By this point, he has either forgotten or willfully ignored the common Millennial trait, that they are communitarians. Gated communities have become a symbol. The gate itself is an agent of distrust, one that might be considered necessary, but also one that is more representative of his generation, Baby Boomers, than Millennials. Millennials are anything if not trusting, even to a fault.

It has been shown that Millennials are more willing than their preceding generations to live in multi-generational households. Kotkin uses this trait as proof of a return to family values, although I am still not sure what that means, as it is tossed out there as some abstract, shiny, dancing fishing lure. With more and more broken homes, I find it confounding, although hopeful, that he suggests this trend will reverse.

It is confusing in that he extends all other trend lines toward infinity, why not this one? As I said, Millennials are family-oriented, so the logic is not without merit. However, multi-generational households are not a new phenomenon. But, rather one that simply disappeared in the Baby Boomer city, that of the hungry, hungry hippo grab for more and more personal space and increase social isolation and alienation. While this may be the preference of the Baby Booming homeowner, what of the generations on either side of the fence?

The parents, now grandparents, are put into homes where their entire mobility is dependent upon their own diminishing driving capacity. They lose their independence and vigor and are effectively warehoused. The children, the latch key kids are bused to/from school, which increasingly look more and more like warehouses than prideful centers of community (with nothing to say about what busing does to school budgets), and thereby limited to where they can go within the reach of foot or bike in the gated community. They become dependent upon working mom and/or dad to get anywhere, stunting the growth of their own responsibility.

What if this trend line towards more broken homes does not reverse and thus extends toward infinity like the rest of his assumptions? Millennials, ever the social creatures, have found family by proxy. Not only are they willing to live in multi-generational households, but also they are also more willing to take on roommates. This possibly is partly due to a laggard economy. Another piece of the puzzle is their desire to extend their more collectivist college lifestyle into their new professional world. This also could possibly be indicative of their extended adolescence that some psychologists suggest now last into their early thirties, particularly for males (my sister had a term for these types, "boy babies" - I'm sure women frustrated with the immaturity of their dates, my girlfriend included, can commiserate). Remember their stunted maturation of personal responsibility from the "family-friendly" gated communities?

However, there is also Millennial's strongly expressed desire for urbanity. Whether this is a reaction to the helpless, boring suburbia of their youth or their inherent nature to be around others, cannot be fully known. They often take on roommates just to live in SoHo or even Uptown Dallas, where the action is. The question becomes, can these proxy families replace the nuclear family, where we can actually choose our family members. It sounds crazy, but it sure falls in line with emerging theories of self-selection and organization.

I certainly do not know the answers to these questions or whether one is inherently good or bad despite what is considered comfortable or traditional (maybe both?). My biggest problem with Kotkin's crystal ball is that he does not allow the deeper traits of Millennials and their preferences for spatial arrangement and ways of living to mold the City to meet their needs; rather he applies his Baby Boomer lens and draws the future looking through it.

One thing we do know, Millennials will most likely be the largest generation in American history. Their effect upon cities will therefore be more profound and transformative than any generation, Baby Boomers included. We also have a good idea that they should be understood as the polar opposite of Boomers. This is not necessarily bad or good, both have positive traits, but it is what it is and we have to work with it. Because of their differences however, it does not take much extrapolation to assume the cities of the future will not be the steroided versions of disconnected, gated suburbia, but quite the opposite: revitalized clusters in interconnected walkable centers of various scales.

See also:

Generation We by Texas's own Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber

Millennials Rising by Howe and Strauss

The Fourth Turning by Howe and Strauss