Ask Millennials About Millennials

by Richard Brockmyer, AICP, and Julia Collins

This article provides important insight into the demographics and trends in planning associated with the millennial generation, those born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

The millennial generation is getting a lot of press these days. Take a look on, the Wall Street Journal, or any other major news organization’s website and you’re bound to find at least one article on how they are “self-absorbed,” “can’t make it on their own,” or “can’t live without technology.” Give it another Google search and you’ll probably find articles about how this generation is “game changing,” “breaking the mold,” or “redefining social interactions.” But, what’s the hubbub? Is this generation really so different? If they are, what does the rise of the millennial generation mean for planners and the communities they serve? We are here to help debunk the myths and articles you may have read and discuss the implications this generation will have on how we plan our future communities.

Who is a millennial?

Let’s start with the basics. While there is no definitive definition, anyone born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s is typically considered part of the millennial cohort. Keep in mind that there are numerous other names for this generation. If you haven’t heard the term millennial, maybe you’ve heard of Generation Y, the Echo Boomers, Generation Next, Generation Net, the Global Generation, Generation We, or Generation Me? It’s all the same – even if some of them are contradictory. No matter what you call them, they are already beginning to have a major impact on everything from the housing and transportation industries to marketing and human resources. In terms of size, think of the baby boomer generation and add about ten million; they are approximately 87 million strong compared to 76 million baby boomers.1 Simply put, it’s the largest age cohort in American history. In terms of where they live, surprisingly the highest concentration of millennials isn’t the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard, but actually the emerging urbanized Western part of the United States.2


Millennials are also the most diverse generation ever seen in American history. A Pew Research report recently found that roughly 43 percent of millennial adults are non-white, which is the highest share of any previous generation.3 Not surprisingly, Hispanics make up a large share of the millennial generation, especially in the southwest. In fact, research by Pam Perlich at the University of Utah suggests that in states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California, the share of 5 - 17-year-olds with immigrant parents is as high or higher than 30 percent.4 Clearly, this exposure to multicultural households will continue to shape this generation and the future choices they make.

Life-Stage Trends

Life-stage trends are important to keep in mind before one considers how this generation will impact our society. We are guessing that at least some of the baby boomers reading this article have an adult millennial living it home, or at the very least had one stay well past their eighteenth birthday or had them come back to live at home for a stint. You’re not alone. In fact, young adults, those 25-34, are now more likely to live in multi-generation households than those who are 85 and older.5 Many millennials are also delaying marriage and parenthood. For instance, 48 percent of boomers were married at age 18 to 32 in 1980. Fast forward to the millennial in 2013 and only 26 percent in that age group were married.6 What does this mean? These trends ultimately lead to smaller family size and far more one and two person households as well as a growing in demand for smaller housing units.


Current economic conditions have a dominant role in some of these trends. While the millennial generation is the most well-educated in American history – with a third of older millennials holding a bachelor’s degree or more – this does not equate to financial success. Most come out of college with significant debt, an average of around $27,000.7 While the economy has continued to improve since the Great Recession, millennials continue to struggle with a much higher unemployment rate – hovering around 10 percent for 20 - 24-year-olds compared to around 5 percent for those older than 25.8 Those who do find a job are often underemployed for their qualifications, working in service industries, just to make ends meet, and, of course, to pay off those student loans.

Wage stagnation also means that millennials with a Bachelor’s degree are earning about $45,000 annually, or about the same amount that the Boomer generation was earning when they left college 30 years ago. For those who don’t go to college, the reality is much worse with the earning gap between college graduates and high-school graduates at an all-time high along with significantly higher unemployment rates.9 The majority of millennials are postponing or simply do not intend on getting married, having children, or buying a house. While economic conditions will change, this generation’s attitudes and behaviors have been shaped during a tumultuous time and in many cases are unlikely to shift significantly throughout the entirety of their lifespans.

Reliance on Technology

The trend that millennials are probably most famous for is their use of technology. Who thinks about millennials without automatically thinking about a kid in skinny jeans with his face glued to his phone? Millennials have often been described as digital natives. Technology isn’t just a tool that they use; it’s a part of their life. It’s probably easiest to describe this way – the oldest millennial doesn’t really know a world without a personal computer, which debuted in 1981. A millennial born ten years later doesn’t know a world without the World Wide Web and was eight years old when Google emerged. A millennial born at the tail end of the cohort has always known a world with camera phones, Facebook, and Skype.

While it’s easy to poke fun at or even find fault with this reliance, they understand technology better than any generation. Additionally, millennials truly are interacting and communicating instantaneously in innovative ways through social media and digital mechanisms (or technology). With that comes a different concept of community, disposable income spending habits on technology, and an expectation for public participation to be available through digital mechanisms.

Impact on Planning

So, what do all of these trends mean? Millennials are different and planners should take note as the implications of these differences are broad and far reaching and will drastically change the approaches we use to shape our communities. Let’s start with transportation preferences. Millennials are driving less and taking transit and other modes of transportation more frequently.10 Even more auto-oriented states, like Utah, are seeing a decrease in the number of 16-19-year-olds with a driver’s license.11

Of course, the previously mentioned economic hardships play a role in our transportation preferences. Cars are expensive and, until recently, the price of gas was continuously growing. But other lifestyle trends are at play as well and will likely last even after the economy is fully recovered. This generation simply views transportation and mobility differently.12

For instance, technology now allows them to answer emails, listen to podcasts, watch movies, or connect with friends during their transit trip. In other words, the transit trip, even if it’s longer than taking a car, can be used as a productive time to catch up on work or for leisure activities they would not be able to do otherwise. Driving a car does not allow this flexibility.


In addition, walking and bicycling provide opportunities for much needed exercise, are low cost, and environmentally friendly – all important considerations for millennials. They are also at the forefront of developing, and early adopters of, innovative transportation choices like bike-shares, car-shares, and systems like Uber and Lyft. Many of us share sentiments like, “Why drive when someone else can do it,” “I can be more efficient if I work on the bus or train on my way to work,” or “I can get there and get some exercise on my bike or by walking.”

Millennial trends are also impacting land use. While many millennials are still living in suburban locations where they have to rely on a car to get most places, the preference to live in more walkable urban locations is clearly stated in a variety of studies by groups like the American Planning Association and the National Association of Realtors. While many still dream of eventually owning a house, the type and location of that unit is more critical than bedrooms and having a yard. A majority prefer smaller houses in walkable mixed-use suburbs with multi-modal transportation options. While ownership is still the end goal for countless millennials, apartments, condos, and accessory dwelling units are attractive options due to housing costs, provided that the neighborhood they are located in offers the urban amenities that they are seeking. In fact, some research suggests that they’re willing to pay more to live in these kinds of places.13 With smaller families and more single-person or two-person households, a large home isn’t necessary. A home that’s close to transit and within walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, parks, and bars is a bigger priority when purchasing.

Key Things to Consider

Now the fun part. Keeping these trends and preferences in mind, what are some of the key things planners should consider when it comes to land use and transportation planning for the future? What are this generation’s needs and desires and how can we take advantage of some of the opportunities they present to address issues like traffic congestion, housing affordability, and community health?

Providing multi-modal transportation choices is key in meeting millennial expectations. It’s clear that they not only value public transit, but are often selecting where they live based on transit availability. The good news is doing this provides a whole host of other sustainable benefits for the larger community. Appropriate transit investment can reduce single-occupancy vehicle travel for others beyond just millennials, reduce roadway congestion and automobile emissions, as well as reduce the need for costly roadway expansions. Land use planners and policy-makers should also consider how land use and development designs can support new or additional transit investments. Transit planners and policy-makers should also consider how to make service more convenient and reliable. Developing web and mobile applications that provide real-time data can go a long way in meeting millennials expectations. Transit providers should also consider adding amenities like Wi-Fi to their systems to bolster the ability to work and relax using technology during the transit trip.

Transportation investment should also be made to better accommodate active transportation choices. Communities should plan and implement suitable bikeways and consider bicycling an equal mode rather than an afterthought. Pedestrians should be viewed as equal roadway users. Providing a continuous, safe network of sidewalks is an obvious first step, but designing complete streetscapes and design enhancements that include the pedestrian should be considered as a main objective. Adding street trees, wayfinding signs, and street furniture not only provides a buffer between pedestrians and vehicles but also can help create the urban environment and amenities so many millennials are seeking. Again, these investments will not just provide something that the millennial population is looking for, but provide safer and more pleasant facilities for the larger community. Incentivizing walking and biking through these changes can lead to a host of health and economic benefits for communities and are significantly smaller investments than roadway improvements.

As planners and policy-makers, we also need to understand the growing demand for small lot single family homes, townhouses, condominiums, and accessory dwelling units. Millennials are not looking for large houses isolated from other uses. Creating an urban environment requires more urban densities, a mix of land uses, and urban design. While many tend to hear the word density and think of Manhattan, the reality is that significant densities can be achieved through a mix of building types that fit within suburban communities. Developing urban centers with building heights between three and six stories is a far more realistic expectation and in many cases far more preferable to even millennials. Allowing accessory dwelling units can also help meet the housing needs. Yet, even allowing these kinds of development will require re-evaluating zoning codes as well as parking requirements and regulations.

The rental market is likely to remain high, especially for the millennial generation, as many continue to struggle with student loan debt, low wages, higher unemployment rates, and a propensity to change jobs frequently. Some communities may initially struggle with meeting this need, fearing that renters won’t feel a sense of ownership in the community or will bring down surrounding land values. We’ve seen plenty of planning commission or city council meetings where these, or similar issues, are brought up as a reason to deny rezoning despite little proof that rental products actually create these results. We want to tell you to fear this no more. Over the next decade, this generation will drive spending and economic growth simply by their sheer number. Some estimates suggest millennials will have more spending power than the Boomers by 2018.14 While allowing higher densities, rental developments, or accessory dwelling units may be unpopular in the short-term in some areas, a community that ignores providing these options does so at its own economic peril.

Planners and policy-makers should also understand the impact that technology is having on the retail industry, and what this could mean for shaping future commercial districts. You can buy anything on the internet, compare prices and it can be at your door the next day. This doesn’t spell doom for brick and mortar retail. Many retailers have actually found unique ways to marry e-commerce with their brick and mortar stores – for example offering free Wi-Fi or offering discounts and online coupons through smartphone applications. This typically means fewer store locations and putting these stores in the right locations.

When millennials go out, they are looking for a shopping experience, a sense of place, and a social component to their outing. This preference may change the face of retail, and the best way for you to support these in your community is to allow and encourage a mix of uses served by transit coupled with urban amenities. Retail that’s easy to walk or get to via transit in “hip” urban centers will likely perform better in the future than big box retail stores. Additionally, something else needs to draw them out as shopping is easy to do online. Unfortunately, this will likely mean further decline for suburban shopping malls and strip malls that are the lifeblood for many communities. Yet, there is an opportunity to revitalize at least some of these areas by creating lifestyle communities that offer a retail component combined with many other uses.

ne of the most important roles for a planner is involving the public in developing and shaping the future. Clearly, there is an opportunity to reach millennials through technology. Yet, all too often all this encompasses is a website and a Facebook page to host PDF documents. Technology can offer so much more, provide a better unbiased sampling of the community and truly allow for more transparency and collaboration with the public. With minimal investments, communities can create interactive maps, share public data sets, set up areas for public forums and the collection of public comments. The days of hosting an open house and expecting people to come to you are gone. Millennials expect to be able to provide input on their own schedule and through the click of a button. Planners should also consider cultural backgrounds and norms in public engagement efforts, especially given the large Hispanic millennial population. Communities may receive more involvement by partnering with community centers, schools, or hosting booths at cultural events.

Despite sometimes being characterized as a generation of narcissists, millennials are actually very charitable and active in social and environmental justice issues. Just as often as the media accuses millennials of being selfish, they are also described as naïve “do-gooders.” The reality is that this generation feels an obligation to tackle complex and problematic issues, even if sometimes it’s done to garner attention for themselves. As planners, we should embrace this do-gooder mentality and make every effort to understand and work with this generation because they ultimately want to contribute.

As planners, we cannot tell what the future will bring but we can rely on trends, markets and preferences to help support our decisions. It is up to us, to support the desires this generation has and give them the choices and opportunities they are looking for, especially those that lead to a more sustainable future. The best thing that you can do for this generation is to make sure they have a voice and are engaged in your planning processes. When discussing important issues like providing multi-modal options, offering different housing choices, or allowing a mix of land uses make sure this generation’s desires and associated trends are not ignored. Better yet, help the larger community understand the impacts of these trends. Undoubtedly, this cohort has and will continue to reshape this country and its built environment. Our aim with this article is to provide insight or at least the desire for you to learn more about them – you can trust us, we’re millennials.

Richard Brockmyer, AICP, recently joined Fehr & Peers, a national transportation consulting firm. Previously he worked for the Utah Transit Authority. Julia Collins is a transportation planner at Wasatch Front Regional Council, where she specializes in the relationships between land use and transportation.


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Published in the July/August 2015 The Western Planner Journal

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