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The Myth of the Urban Boomer

Baby boomers are such a large group that you can find them practically everywhere in great numbers, including in urban areas. Today in cities, for example, you’re more likely to run into a 54-to-72-year-old with your bike or scooter (please be careful!) than you would have in the past.

Maybe that’s the reason many news media accounts have promoted the idea that boomers are returning to cities at a rapid rate.

It seems to make sense. Many downtowns are safer and livelier than they were 30 years ago. At a certain point, downsizing and moving back to the city has appeal — it’s closer to work and all those interesting things to do, and the children might have finally left the nest.

There’s one problem. The story line is wrong: Boomers today are actually less urban than previous generations of older people.

In 2018, 17.8 percent of people aged 54 to 72 lived in urban neighborhoods, defined based on neighborhood density. That’s down from 18.2 percent for that age group in 2010, 19.9 percent in 2000, and 21.6 percent in 1990. The downward trend is similar whether looking at all urban neighborhoods or just the highest-density ones.

The decline in urban living has been even more pronounced for older people than for younger ones. Boomers were 11 percent less likely to live in urban neighborhoods in 2018 than the same age group was in 2000 — compared with declines of 2 percent for Gen Xers and 4 percent for millennials.

Moreover, while there has been a notable increase in urban living among higher-income young adults, rich older people are less likely to live in urban neighborhoods in 2018 than their counterparts in 2000, even with a very slight increase since 2012.

Why do we keep encountering articles about the urban oldster: in Chicago, in Hartford, in Atlanta? Several understandable reasons.

First, people in this age group are increasingly living in ways usually associated with cities. In 2018, people ages 54 to 72 were (1) more likely to rent and (2) more likely to live in multi-unit buildings than adults of similar ages in the past. Older adults of today are less likely to own suburban single-family homes than was the case 10 or 20 years ago. However, the big increase in renting and apartment living for this age group has not been in urban neighborhoods. Instead, it has been in suburban rentals, both for apartments and for single-family homes. (Boomers grew up during the postwar mass production of suburban housing.)

Second, it’s still true that at a certain age people become somewhat more likely to live in urban neighborhoods as they downsize and look to be less dependent on cars. The typical 80-year-old is more likely than the typical 70-year-old to live in an urban neighborhood, and the typical 85-year-old even more so.

But that “certain age” has been rising. In 1990, living in urban neighborhoods was lowest for those 45 to 49, and higher for older age groups. The low point for urban living rose to age 55 to 59 in 2000 and to 70-74 in both 2010 and 2018. Many boomers are still at least a decade away from that turnaround point when urban living starts to increase.

Third: The demographic bulge of boomer-driven aging means that 19.9 percent of urban residents in 2018 were 54 to 72, a steady increase from 17.3 percent in 2010 and 13.7 percent in 2000. Of course, the population of people that age is growing even faster outside of urban neighborhoods — which is just another way of saying that boomers are less urban than older adults used to be.

For developers and public officials in cities, the rising number of older city dwellers is real, and it matters. There is growing demand for the housing features and public services that many older adults prefer. More of the urban housing stock will need to be homes that work for seniors. But that’s not because boomers love cities or are more drawn to urban living than previous generations — just the opposite. It’s simply that there are more of them, almost everywhere.

Jed Kolko is the chief economist at Indeed.com and senior fellow at the U.C.-Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. You can follow him on Twitter at @JedKolko.

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