Philadelphia a hot spot among Millennials? Not so fast, researchers say.

Philadelphia’s ability to attract millennials has fueled plenty of boastful headlines and civic booster chatter in recent years, but a new study by the Brookings Institution raises concerns about how well the metro region stacks up in the competition for young residents.

Brookings demographer William H. Frey came to a different conclusion than the authors of a 2014 Pew study that said Philly saw the fastest millennial population growth in the nation, at 6.1 percent between 2006 and 2012. According to Brookings, the Philadelphia metropolitan region’s millennial population only grew by 3.7 percent between 2010 and 2015 — ranking it 80th among the largest metro areas.  

The differences between the two may suggest a slide in the city’s popularity among young people, or it may do little more than demonstrate how just a few tweaks to the same data sets can generate radically different conclusions.

The two studies didn’t just review different time periods; they analyzed different geographic areas. Pew compared the nation’s largest 30 cities, while Brookings looked at the top 100 metropolitan statistical areas, which include suburbs and smaller cities. So, while Philadelphia itself may be attracting lots of millennials, the 11-county, Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro region as a whole may be drawing fewer young people than other major metro areas. 

Pew also defined millennials as residents aged 20-34 as of 2012, meaning people born between 1978 and 1992, while Brooking defined the generation as those born between 1981-1997.  

Neither the older Pew study nor this Brookings report suggests that Philadelphia is a particularly young city. Pew pegged the millennial percentage of the city’s population at 26 percent, and Brookings places the region at 23.4 percent, good for 60th among the hundred largest metro areas and even with the national average.

Looking at 2015 Census data for just Philadelphia County, and the numbers improve slightly: 29.6 percent of the city’s population were aged 18-34 that year.  

According to the Brookings data, the Delaware Valley remains a draw for millennials in absolute terms. With 1.4 million ‘80s and ‘90s babies within its borders, the Philadelphia MSA, home to six million in total, has the seventh largest number of millennials. In terms of millennial educational attainment, the region did relatively well, coming in at 17th, with college graduates making up 43 percent of those aged 25-34 in the area, compared to 36 percent nationwide. The region attracted young adults across racial lines with 57 percent of millennials identifying as white, 22 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, seven percent Asian and 2 percent, two or more races. While whites make up the largest share of the millennial population, the generation is slightly more racially diverse than the region as a whole, which is 62.6  percent white. 

Within the Keystone state, the Philly region ranked as the most millennial-happy region, narrowly beating out Harrisburg, which weighed in with a 22 percent millennial population. Pittsburgh came in a close third, with a 21.6 percent representation. 

The Philadelphia metro area’s poverty rate among millennials was 14.6 percent, placing the region somewhere in the middle of the pack compared to other metros. Economic distress is most common among millennials in McAllen, Texas where 31 percent of the cohort live below the poverty line while San Jose— Silicon Valley — has the smallest share of millennials living in poverty with only seven percent checking that box. Washington D.C. and Ogden, Utah rank just below the Northern California tech hub with nine percent of millennials in both cities living in poverty. The Philly region’s millennial poverty  rate is just slightly higher than its overall poverty rate of 13 percent. 

The Brookings study attempts to disaggregate millennials in an effort to stop discussing tens of millions of Americans as a single, monolithic entity often discussed as a reductive amalgamation of its relative differences from prior generations: educated, city-dwelling young adults with smartphone addictions and avocado cravings.  

While it’s true that millennials have graduated from college in greater numbers than prior generations, the vast majority (64 percent) never earned a degree. While a lot (24.7 percent) of millennials live in a metro area’s urban core, most are in the suburbs (46.3 percent) or the exurbs (20.9 percent) — and those numbers exclude millennials in truly rural areas far from an urban center.

The broad intergenerational trends track across regions and races — urban millennials of all races are more likely not to be married, not own a home, have more education, and be living in poverty than prior generations.

But among millennials no matter where they live, whites and Asians are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to have gone to college, gotten married, own a home, and earn a decent salary.

The report also suggests that not all the factors driving population growth are within a region’s control. All of the top 10 fastest growing millennial populations, with growth rates exceeding 10 percent, were in temperate and scenic parts of the South and West, with Colorado Springs coming in first, San Antonio, second and Denver, third. Orlando and Honolulu ranked fourth and fifth. Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, a place of great interest to Philadelphia in recent months, came in 10th with a millennial growth rate of 11 percent. 


Editors Note: This article was updated on Feb.1 to clarify that the Brookings Institution report did not directly comment on any earlier research on Philadelphia’s millennial population. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal