As the fourth installment of the Big City Big Ideas lecture series, U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) hosted a panel discussion exploring the role of Millennials in reshaping the urban landscape. For those of you who are not hip to this terminology, Millennials are quite simply the children of the baby boomers (aka Gen X) born between 1972 and 1992 hence the clever moniker: echo boom generation. Statistics Canada reported that Millennials (aka Gen Y) falling between the ages of 19 and 39 accounted for 27% of the total Canadian population in 2011. In light of these numbers which align with global demographic and immigration trends, politicians, industry leaders, and academic experts are forced to pay close attention to this new generation of avid urbanists and self-proclaimed citizens of the world.
The Globe and Mail’s architecture columnist Lisa Rochon mediated a panel discussion including TD Economist Francis Fong and Washington DC policy expert Rolf Pendall of the Urban Institute to a full house. Urban enthusiasts of all ages flocked to Innis College to better understand how Millennials differ from their parents, and more importantly, how their new-age values shape the spaces they inhabit and services they require.
Pendall gave an insightful presentation outlining several urban truths including the normalcy of youth-led exodus from suburban or rural neighbourhoods, as young people have had a long history of moving to cities in search of better economic and social opportunities. He characterized this age-old phenomenon as the “highest mobility period of life”, thus justifying the fluidity of the Millennial lifestyle. Interestingly, Pendall does not regard Millennials as unique because of their pattern of movement or divergent values. Much to my surprise, he cites our parents’ move to the suburbs during their ‘mobility period’ as the anomaly. This provides relevant context for the current state of our cities. He mused that significant investments were made to customize cities and burgeoning suburban neighbourhoods to post-war lifestyles and preferences, leaving Millennials with an urban landscape designed and built for their predecessors.
Over time, the mass move by baby boomers to the suburbs hollowed many downtown American cities. But the tide has shifted. According to Pendall, Millennials have basically rejected the norms of their predecessors by opting for the independence and diversity offered by cities on a long-term basis. Millennials, whom he characterizes as born between 1981 and 1995, have broken the mould by choosing to remain in cities for a considerably longer period and even indefinitely, thereby changing the collective trajectory of this generation. As heralded in the title of this IMFG session, such a realignment of values has important implications for demographics, economics, social cohesion, population health and city-building.
As the audience listened attentively to the story of how Millennials are rebuilding American cities like Chicago, Houston and San Francisco in more ways than one, I wondered to myself: How are Toronto’s Millennials faring on this scale? How is Toronto fighting to attract, retain and nurture its Millennials? Not long after Pendall’s address, TD Economist Francis Fong delivered a gritty overview of a report entitled Toronto: A return to the core which gives some insight into growth trends for the Greater Toronto Area. Fong described what can be understood as our very own gold rush: residents and businesses scrambling to secure coveted real estate located within reasonable distance to transit in the downtown core. He attributes this pattern to widespread recognition of the implicit value of clustered access to residential and commercial development, employment opportunities and recreational amenities in the downtown as well as a generational rejection of the baby boom lifestyle. As an echo boomer himself, Fong infused personal anecdotes to illustrate some of the scenarios facing young professional Millennials while giving some insight as to how their changing values are affecting urban reality. Despite this candid view of regional development patterns, many of the systemic issues, like lingering youth unemployment and growing racialization of poverty, plaguing Toronto’s Millennials were mentioned only in passing. Toronto’s story seemed unfinished.
As a city bred on immigrant settlement and labour, it is critical that we also carefully consider the socio-economic divides between native and foreign-born baby boomers as well as native and foreign-born Millennials. Statistics Canada has reported that immigration contributes to the increased size of the Gen Y population in Canada. Research clearly shows a marked difference in economic wellbeing (including income and earning potential) based on place of birth, immigrant status and race. One study questions how the inheritance of social class impacts the educational, occupational and income achievements of second-generation racialized immigrants (classified as aged 25-39 in this study). The findings show greater upward mobility for some racial minorities in the US, while others struggle in comparator countries like Canada and Australia. What does this mean for the Millennial Movement in Canada? Are some Millennials forced to look south of the border, or even farther, to secure economic well-being?
Statistics show that as of 2006, approximately 80% of Canada’s population lived in an urban area, thus validating this discussion as timely and crucial for mapping the journey ahead. Recent Canadian research shows that despite the allure of cities as hubs for economic growth and socio-cultural diversity, many are like Toronto are suffering from rampant income equality, polarized neighbourhoods and growing precariousness of work. This leaves Millennials susceptible to the harsh realities of urban life with little or no social safety net as austerity threatens to erode their quality of life, and by extension, values central to this generation’s identity. The Millennial Movement cannot force an urban revolution by simply addressing tangible elements of our built environments like housing and transit, as we would be remiss in excluding the political, legal and economic forces that govern these sacred spaces. Will we heed Pendall’s call for system-level change? Without making the connections between tax freezes and diminished access to services or stalled transit plans and growing rates of obesity and diabetes, we run the risk of derailing the Millennial Movement before it really picks up steam.