When it comes to attracting the hip and cool, Southern California, long a cultural trendsetter, appears to be falling behind – at least in the view of the national media. Articles about where millennials are, or should be, going rarely mention anywhere in this region as a top choice.
Rather than hang out at the beach or enjoy poolside ambience, the conventional wisdom is that the millennial generation – those born after 1983 – would rather go anywhere else. Southern California is not on a list of the top 12 regions (although San Diego gets a mention) for millennials, published in the Huffington Post. Other “best” lists and similar compilations invariably highlight New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and Boston, but rarely SoCal.
What numbers tell us
But sometimes, before succumbing to conventional wisdom, one has to look at the numbers. We examined the percentages of millennials – we took the ages 20-29 – and their growth in all 52 major U.S. metropolitan areas. To our surprise, Los Angeles-Orange County scored very high – No. 5 – with a 15.5 percent share. That’s well above the 14 percent total nationally. San Bernardino-Riverside, at 15 percent, ranked ninth.
This research placed Southern California well ahead of such supposed youth magnets as Seattle, Boston, New York and San Francisco, whose population is actually under-represented in terms of millennials. Nor, despite the social media bubble, are things shifting to the denser “hip,” “cool” cities so widely celebrated in the media. In fact, with the exception of Seattle, the Los Angeles area’s rate of millennial growth far outstripped that of Austin, New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
Southern California turns out to be more of a youth magnet than one might think. In terms of millennials’ share of population growth, San Bernardino-Riverside ranked second of 52 metro areas, adding 50,000 millennials, an 8.3 percent increase since 2010. Los Angeles and Orange counties – older, settled areas with far lower population growth – together registered 18th, adding 90,000 twenty-somethings since 2010. That’s the most of any metropolitan area, including New York.
Reality and Perception
What accounts for this gap between perception and reality? One key factor lies with the media, which, outside Hollywood, has abandoned Southern California. Like many shrinking industries, news media is consolidating in a few strongholds – New York, Washington and, increasingly, San Francisco. Reporters from these cities tend to like (at least for now) dense, urban, transit-dependent places. Many of their friends do, too,rejecting “sprawling, car-dependent cities.” Like it or not, that sums up Southern California.
Yet, the common assertion that most millennials hate suburbs, cars and “sprawl” may be yet another urban myth promulgated by developers, planners and their handmaidens in the media. It turns out that the percentage of twenty-somethings nationally living in the denser core counties in 2013 is slightly lower than in 2010. The vast majority of millennials, roughly 70 percent, live well outside the core counties, and their numbers grew overall by three times as much over the past three years.
In fact, virtually all the densest core areas – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston – lost millennials. Everybody’s favorite millennial destination, Portland, Ore., experienced the second-greatest loss of population ages 20-29 in its core county, surpassed only by St. Louis.
It appears that being part of a “sprawling area,” in fact, does not discourage millennial growth. The fastest-growing millennial regions – San Antonio, the Inland Empire, Orlando, Fla. – are all renowned for spreading out. Instead of living in high-density areas, these millennials reside in apartments and homes distant from the core; many, perhaps one in three, are still at their parents’ houses.
We refer to them as the “hidden millennials.” They are not the high-profile Brooklyn hipsters and their imitators nationally; nor are they attached to the social media oligarchy around San Francisco. They live far from the iPads of the reportorial class and the promotors of the “hip and cool” urban gospel. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible in the minds of most media.
One last thing to keep in mind. Many of these hidden millennials are working-class and minorities. One possible explanation for Southern California’s millennial surge lies with large Hispanic communities, which for three decades have maintained a considerably higher birth rate than that of non-Hispanic whites. Nationally, Latinos constitute 20 percent of millennials, compared with 13 percent of U.S. residents over age 30. In Southern California, Latinos account for slightly over half of twenty-somethings and 37 percent of older cohorts.
Where do Southern California millennials Live?
The widely embraced “back to the city core” mantra attributed to millennials is partially true but definitely overstated, particularly in Southern California. To be sure, from 2000-10, Downtown Los Angeles gained more than 4,200 twenty-somethings, an impressive 25 percent increase. But these gains were essentially offset by losses of more than 17,000 in the areas bounded by the South Bay, Southeast L.A. County, West L.A. and the Santa Monica Mountains. As we have seen in many American regions, strong gains of millennials in the core have been counterbalanced by a loss of younger people in the surrounding areas.
In contrast, the big growth has occurred in places that are not usually associated with hip youth culture. The biggest percentage increases in millennial populations – far higher than for Downtown L.A. – have occurred in various Inland Empire communities, as well as Valencia, the Victor Valley, Irvine and Coachella. In actual numbers, the predominance of these outlying areas is overwhelming. Irvine’s and South Orange County’s gain of more than 19,000 millennials stands out, not to mention the Inland Empire’s gain of 95,000 or even the nearly 20,000 who have appeared in far-flung Valencia-Antelope Valley. Southwestern Riverside County (Temecula-Murrieta-Perris) gained nearly 50,000, the largest of any area subregion.
Overall, millennial growth in the urban core, with the exception of Downtown L.A., is very slow or even negative. It is also negligible in extra-expensive areas of the Westside and coastal Orange County; high rents and housing prices make these areas increasingly off-limits to all but the most well-heeled millennials. Policymakers, often obsessed with the urban core and its hipster denizens, need to recognize this varied millennial geography. Most of the next generation are not hanging out in cool Hollywood cafes but in malls in the outer periphery or in middle- and upper-middle-class, family-friendly enclaves such as Valencia or Irvine.
These millennials may be “hidden” but servicing their needs and desires deserves a far more concerted effort by policymakers. This means such things as looking to the periphery for expanding parks, cultural events and educational opportunities that may persuade these millennials to stay and help rebuild this region’s economy.
The demographic future of Southern California will not be determined primarily on Spring Street or Rodeo Drive but across, literally, hundreds of communities, often far-flung, where the bulk of our twenty-somethings reside.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Cross-posted at New Geography.