Using comic strips to sell the suburbs to millennials

A suburb south of Chicago has a new marketing campaign intended to attract millennial residents:

“Think Homewood” ads, which debuted this month and will run through May, feature three comic strips that focus on affordability, schools, parks, community and creativity. The village, which is about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, is spending $20,000 on the campaign focused on appealing to millennials…

In those comic panels, two moms stress over registering their kids for schools and park district activities. “I have an alarm set on my phone,” one mom cries when discussing her anxiety about plans to register for a gymnastics class. “If I’m late 30 seconds and miss the window to get a space, I’m so screwed.”

In the other Chicago strip, a dad driving from the grocery store with his wife and toddler shouts, “Frak!” after forgetting avocados for dinner. The couple decide they lack the fortitude to fight traffic and find a parking spot for a return trip to the store. “Goodbye, Taco Night,” an exasperated dad laments.

Those are contrasted with the relatively idyllic “Somewhere in Homewood” strips, where a return to the store for avocados is easy, and the park district has room for another kid in gymnastics even though classes start the next day.

Here is the first strip from ThinkHomewood.com:

https://i1.wp.com/thinkhomewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/CarCard_Homewood_Strip_1_FINAL-1.jpg

The comic strip seems to hit the right notes regarding one big reason many Americans head for the suburbs: they want a good place to raise a family. Emphasizing safety, lots of green space, good schools, and interesting activities fits into this category.

The strips also highlight a new dimension of suburbs: their growing popularity as cultural and entertainment centers in their own right. While a smaller suburb cannot compete with the restaurant or theater or sports scene in a major city, it can have more cultural amenities. These suburban pockets of fun help move communities past decades-old images of bedroom suburbs where everyone is inside by dinner and nightlife is non-existent. (Of course, most areas in suburbs are relatively quiet places and not every suburb can easily develop a thriving downtown like in Naperville.)

On the downside: many communities have such marketing campaigns. Do they really work? The article goes on to discuss several other Chicago suburbs that have mounted campaigns and the evidence seems thin about whether marketing really attracts people. It is difficult for a smaller suburb to stand out within a region like the Chicago area where there are hundreds of places to live. Would a comic strip be enough to convince people to look in Homewood rather than in dozens of other places?

Finally: do millennials read comic strips like this?

If millennials prefer suburbs, what could lead to suburban decline?

Joel Kotkin argues that millennials would rather live in suburbs than big cities:

It has been often asserted that millennials (defined as the generation born between 1982 and 2002) do not want to buy homes or live in suburbia; Fast Company, saw this as “an evolution of consciousness.” The Guardian declares that millennials are refusing to accept “the economic status quo” while Wall Street looked forward to profiting from the idea that millennials will be satisfied to live within a “rentership society” (PDF)…

Meanwhile, the much mocked suburbs have continued to dominate population trends, including among millennials. As people age, they tend, economist Jed Kolko notes, to move out of core cities to suburban locations. Although younger millennials have tended toward core cities more than previous generations had, the website FiveThirtyEight notes that as they age they actually move to suburban locations at a still higher clip than those their age have in the past. We have already passed, in the words of USC demographer Dowell Myers, “peak millennial,” and are seeing the birth of a new suburban wave (PDF).

To some extent, the meme about millennials and cities never quite fit reality outside of that observed by journalists in media centers like New York, D.C., and San Francisco. More than 80 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in major metropolitan areas already live in suburbs and exurbs, according to the latest data—a share that is little changed from 2010 or 2000.

Suburban tastes remain predominant with 4 in 5 people under 45 preferring the single-family detached houses most often in suburban locales (PDF). Surveys such as those from the Conference Board and Neilson consistently find that most millennials see suburbs as the ideal place to live in the long run (PDF). According to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, more than 2 in 3 millennials, including most of those living in cities, would prefer a house in the suburbs.

If these trends continue, the suburbs will live on for quite a while in the United States.

This raises a question that I occasionally think about: what exactly would it take for millennials and other Americans to give up on suburbs? A few possibilities:

  1. Significantly higher gas prices. Apparently, getting up to $3-4 a gallon was not enough.
  2. Ecological disasters in the suburbs. Since there isn’t likely something that would affect all suburban areas at once (and not urban or rural areas), perhaps this would involve incidents in a number of major metropolitan areas.
  3. Another burst housing bubble. If housing it not more attractive in suburbs, this might change a lot of minds.
  4. All major employers move to big cities. I’m not sure why they would all do this is a significant number of workers are still in the suburbs but perhaps many employers needing educated workers would moving to cities, leaving suburban residents with low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Even with one of these scenarios, it would take significant time to see the suburbs on the whole decline and wealthier pockets would hold on for quite a while. Overturning the association between the American Dream and suburban life will be hard to reverse.

More evidence of “peak millennial” reached in major American cities

Time suggests 2016 Census data shows a number of American cities have plateaued in terms of millennial residents:

After years of growth, the population of millennials in Boston and Los Angeles has fallen since 2015, with more young people leaving the cities than arriving last year, according to the latest Census data. And millennial growth has slowed in large hubs like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

Dowell Myers, professor of demography at the University of Southern California, first suggested in 2015 that cities would begin to see declines in millennials. With the largest birth group turning 27 this year, Myers says it’s only a matter of time before millennials head to the suburbs for more space.

To see which cities have reached “peak millennial” — a term Myers coined —we analyzed a decade of Census data through 2016. We found that while tech hubs like San Francisco and Seattle are still drawing young people, large East Coast cities, like New York and D.C., are fast approaching peak millennial, with plateauing populations of those born between 1980 and 1996. And then there are cities like Boston, which already appear to have reached their peak. Boston lost roughly 7,000 millennials in 2016, after a record high of 259,000 the previous year…

But they won’t live with roommates forever, Myers says. Eventually, he expects millennials to follow the generations before them and move to the suburbs. “They’re waiting for the recovery to happen,” he says “for new housing and job opportunities open up — so they can move out.”

If this continues, cities will have to think about how to continue to grow their populations. And cities generally do not want any residents; they desire professionals and high-income earners who can contribute to their tax base. But, to some degree they are fighting against demographics as household sizes have shrunk in the United States and birth rates have been steady or declined slightly since 1990. Perhaps their best bet these days is to attract highly-skilled immigrants but this may be an uphill battle as well considering national conversations about immigration, competition between cities, and the significant number of immigrants to the United States that move directly to the suburbs.

Read earlier posts on this topic here and here.

Employers now looking for millennial workers in denser suburbs

Even as some companies go to the big cities looking for young talent, others are headed to denser suburbs to find millennials with families who are attracted to suburbia:

Fresh college graduates might be attracted to downtown bars and carless commutes, but these days, for older millennials starting families and taking out mortgages, a job in the suburbs has its own appeal. “What people find is that the city offers a high quality of life at the income extremes,” said Lamphere, who is chief executive of Van Vlissingen & Co., a real-estate developer based in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill. “The city is a difficult place for the average working family.”

Many employers, hoping to attract millennials as they age, are trying to marry the best of urban and suburban life, choosing sites near public transit and walkable suburban main streets. “What’s desired downtown is being transferred to suburban environments to attract a suburban workforce,” said Scott Marshall, an executive managing director for investor leasing at CBRE Group…

None of this means the suburbs will supplant central cities as job hubs. After all, jobs traditionally based in cities-jobs in professional industries as well as the service jobs that support them-are growing faster than those typically based outside of them, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.

At the same time, Americans are more likely to live in the suburbs today than they were in 2000, and even the young, affluent ones drawn to cities tend to move once their kids reach school age, Kolko’s research shows. Many of those workers will suffer long commutes into the city center. Others will opt for jobs closer to their suburban homes.

Which of these two patterns is more true: (1) employers chase locations in a cyclical nature with more moving to the suburbs after World War II and then returning to the city or some cities in more recent years as certain urban locations became trendy and/or desirable or (2) employers since World War II have regularly gone back and forth between cities and suburbs depending on their employee needs and changes within metropolitan regions. Since I do not study this exact topic, I do not know which explanation the data matches (or if there is even a third option). Yet, certain interested parties – the media, city and suburban leaders, and companies often like to push a particular narrative to help their side look better.

Indeed, this article suggests a third option: employers want to find millennials who want both the suburban life – nice, safe, quiet communities – and the urban life – exciting cultural scene. Certain suburbs do offer this kind of lifestyle and some academics have argued this is the way the suburbs are going: even as some will still be interested in spreading the edges of suburbia further and further out, at least a few suburbs will become denser and influential small cities. I’m not sure this is entirely tied to millennials as such locations could appeal to older suburbanites who want a more walkable area and may not require single-family homes.

In other words, the jury is still out on this as a possible trend.

Millennials seek suburban homes and SUVs

Recent data shows several consumption patterns among Millennials:

Generationally speaking, the stereotype of millennials as urbanites falls flat when it comes to homeownership. The Zillow 2016 Consumer Housing Trends Report found that 47 percent of millennial homeowners live in the suburbs, with 33 percent settling in an urban setting and 20 percent opting for a rural area.

Millennial homebuyers do wait longer to buy a first home than did previous generations. But they are skipping the traditional “starter home” and buying larger homes that were previously considered the norm for “move up” buyers…

Erich Merkle, an economist with Ford, says that as millennials cross the threshold into family life, they’re buying large SUVs.

“We expect them to carry on as they age with three-row SUVs and likely go larger simply because they need the space to accommodate children that are now teenagers or preteenagers,” he said.

That combination so emblematic of 2000s consumption – the suburban big home (a McMansion?) and SUV – may be back. On one hand, perhaps this is what millennials are used to or they think they should aspire to. On the other side, consuming these objects can draw criticism. Did Americans learn anything (housing bubble, reliance on cheap oil)? Do they understand the consequences of these purchases (a commitment to sprawl and consuming more than they need)? How could they make such uncool choices (compared to dwellings in hot urban neighborhoods or acquiring cooler vehicles)?

Perhaps this suburban driving culture will continue for a long time…

The big Baby Boomer house does not necessarily equal a Mcmansion

A recent analysis on Realtor.com uses the term McMansion as shorthand for a large house owned by a Baby Boomer. Here is the crux of the argument regarding the habits of millennials:

“They’ll buy a smaller house with fancier amenities, close to town, rather than chase square footage,” Dorsey says.

This argument has been made for several years now: millennials are willing to live in smaller homes but desire certain amenities. But, is every big house a McMansion? No, no, no – a minority of American homes are over 3,000 square feet but not all of them are McMansions. Even if they meet the size requirement, they may not be teardowns, suffer architecturally, or exist in lonely suburban communities or all house crass consumers or the nouveau riche. And do all Baby Boomers live in McMansions? Of course not. There may be broad patterns at play here – Baby Boomers have plenty of houses to sell, millennials may not want all of those particular homes – but using loaded terms like McMansions or suggesting incompatibility across entire generations may be going too far.

Side note: this Baby Boomers vs. millennials in the housing market is gaining steam across media sources. How will the Boomers sell all of their houses? (See earlier posts here and here.) What do millennials want in houses and communities? (See earlier posts here and here.)

Most millennials want to buy a home but we keep findings ones who don’t want to

Here is a recent story that both includes survey data that most millennials want to purchase a home yet leads with one who does not want to do this:

Niederkorn, a member of the millennial generation, currently lives with his parents but said he plans to be a renter for life and never buy a home. He craves the ability to pack up and go, he said, and doesn’t want to be saddled with a home loan, property taxes or homeowners associations fees. And though this may put him in the minority — an Apartment List survey of about 24,000 renters nationwide released in May found that 80 percent of millennial renters want to buy a house or condo sometime in the future — it does raise some interesting questions about the American Dream and the place of homeownership within it.

The historical overview of homeownership that follows is helpful but it is a weird premise: the cited data suggests there is a clear pattern but there is this one suburban guy who is going another direction. Do we follow the data or the single story?

On a related note, journalists are fascinated with millennials and what they may or not do, including buying a home. When I see such stories, I wonder if this is masking three different purposes:

  1. This is just another way to suggest there is a trend (journalists are always looking for trends).
  2. Journalists really hope millennials usher in major changes to American society.
  3. Younger journalists often live in big cities and want other millennials to affirm their choices.

Homeownership and suburban living is a hot topic in this area: will millennials follow their parents to the cookie-cutter suburbs and live boring lives? (There is often an evaluation of the suburbs included in the story.) I haven’t seen many articles where the conclusion is that many or most millennials will end up in the suburbs.