If educated young adults are the foundation of economic dynamism, Seattle and a group of other metro areas have been clear winners in the past decade. Young, college educated people are the most likely to migrate between states, and they head disproportionately to certain metro areas, especially on the West Coast.
Will this pattern continue in the post-pandemic world? That is one more of the many questions that we do not have enough information to address with any confidence. Perhaps uncertainty and economic hardship will cause people to freeze in place for a while, as they did after 2008. Or perhaps the way the pandemic plays out around the country signals which cities are best equipped for the future, and young people will head to those cities. Or perhaps lower density, less connected mid-sized metro areas offer the best combination of lower risk and economic opportunity.
We will examine these scenarios in a future article. But first, let’s look at the emergence of the Young Adult City.
We will focus on the young adults who were between the ages of 25 and 40 in 2018. Born between 1978 and 1993, this age group roughly corresponds to what we have come to call the Millennial generation. This large cohort is entirely of the age to be in the workforce, and is in the prime age group for having children.
How big is this cohort? Figure 1 shows the population pyramid for the entire U.S. in 2018, with the Millennial generation between the red lines. (Each horizontal bar represents the population of a five-year age cohort, male on the left, female on the right.)
Those slightly longer bars between the red lines do not look so exceptional at a national level. But population is fluid. In 2018, about 3 percent of Americans moved from one state to another or from overseas, but 4.5 percent of people between 25 and 40 years old made such a move. In the Seattle metro area, 8.5 percent of people in the 25 to 40 age group had moved from outside the state in the previous year.
That population movement will show up in population pyramids constructed for individual areas. Figure 2 shows the population pyramid for King County in 2018. Now we see the impact of migrating Millennials. The bars for the ages 25 through 39 are long, indicating quite a bit of in-migration in recent years.
What about the other Western cities that seem to have been attracting large numbers of Millennials? Figures 4 and 5 show pyramids for San Francisco County (which just includes the city of San Francisco) and Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes the city of Portland.
We see a similar over-representation of 25 to 40-year-old in these cities, especially San Francisco.
Figure 5 shows the “winners” in the game of attracting young adults among the 50 largest metro areas, which, together, contain about 55 percent of the nation’s population. For three key age brackets, the table shows the share of the population in that bracket and the ranking for that share. The metro areas are listed by their rank in the share of their population between the ages of 25 and 40. (The data in Figure 5 cover metro areas, which are larger and have more balanced population structures than the counties described in the population pyramids.)
Austin has the largest share of its population in the 25 to 40 bracket, and Seattle has the second largest share of its population in that bracket. The next seven metro areas in this ranking are all in the West.
Interestingly, many of the cities that rank high in the share of 25 to 40 year-olds rank low in the first column, for share of population under age 25. Seattle, Portland and San Francisco ranked especially low in their share of the youngest bracket. But looking at the population pyramids in Figures 2,3, and 4, with their very skinny lower ends, this make sense. The millennial bulges in the Young Adult Cities are due to in-migration of people who grew up elsewhere. Also note that the cities with the lowest share of 25 to 40 year-olds have the highest share of baby boomers in the 55 to 75 bracket.
We can contrast the Western cities with a region that has had economic challenges and has difficulty attracting young people. Figure 3 shows the pyramid for St. Louis County, Missouri.
Here we see the Baby Boom generation still the largest of the cohorts, with the longest bars on the chart in the 55 to 64 age range. The Millennial bars at 25 to 29 are slightly longer, but still smaller than the Baby Boom bars.The overall shape of the St. Louis pyramid is close the national pyramid in Figure 1, suggesting that St. Louis has low net migration either in or out.
In-migration to the Seattle area is already down sharply, as would be expected. In March, 2020, trade-ins of out-of-state driver’s licenses were down 46 percent from March of 2019. We can expect trade-ins from April and May to be extremely low, as all travel has been curtailed. (There is a lag in the driver’s license data since people do not always trade in their license immediately after moving to the state.)
Going forward, it is not at all clear what migration patterns will look like. Because the impact of the shutdown of businesses during the coronavirus pandemic has been so uneven across the country, and because of other factors such as the collapse of oil prices, there will be large imbalances around the country in labor demand and supply in the coming months and probably years. These imbalances provide the push and pull of migration.
Questions going forward are:
- Will the large Western cities, with their high densities and international connections, be perceived as less safe as long as the pandemic threat continues?
- Will the relative success of the West Coast in avoiding the worst impacts from the pandemic signal that these cities are safer places to migrate to?
- Will the fact that West Coast-based technology businesses were less harmed, and many even thrived, during the pandemic attract young people looking for opportunity?
- Will any of the large West Coast metro areas address their housing affordability problems so that their Millennial in-migrants will want to start families there?
- Will more affordable Western cities like Spokane, Boise, Salt Lake City and Sacramento attract Millennials who cannot afford homes in the coastal cities?