How migration of millennials and seniors has shifted since the Great Recession



Migration across the United States has shifted noticeably since the 2007-2009 Great Recession with many areas hoping to attract members of two huge generations: the young adult millennial generation and the increasingly graying baby boomers. Millennials, a highly educated and diverse generation now squarely in their late 20s and 30s, are forming the backbone of various regions’ emerging labor forces and consumer bases. Baby boomers, now all aged 55 and above, can reinvigorate communities that retain or attract their more affluent members.

Recently released migration data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 5 year American Community Survey identify major metropolitan areas that attract age groups dominated by millennials and baby boomers for the period 2012-2017 compared to earlier periods. They show that the top regional magnets for young adults (ages 25-34) do not overlap with those that are attracting seniors (ages 55 and older) and for both groups, the recent magnets differ from those prior to the Great Recession. 

Young adult and senior migration rates have slowed down

Overall, the rates of migration have slowed down since the Great Recession. Figure 1 displays annual intercounty migration rates among young adults and seniors for years prior to the recession (2004-2007), the five year period during and immediately after it (2007-2012), and the post-recession period (2012-2017).

Figure 1

Through each of these periods, young adult migration rates were substantially higher than those of seniors. Young adults move when they experience family changes and are seeking jobs, whereas senior moves are associated with a more settled population desiring to downsize or retire. Still, annual mobility rates of both young adults and seniors decreased after the onset of the Great Recession.

As millennials came of adult age, the migration slowdown reflected stalling housing and job markets, and they continued to delay marriage and childbearing. For seniors, as more baby boomers entered their ranks, these migration patterns reflected a desire to delay retirement or, for those who did retire and wanted to move, a difficulty in selling existing homes.

Neither group saw a return to their pre-recession migration rates even in 2012-2017, though senior rates are approaching the numbers observed between 2005 and 2007. Young adults are still far from reaching their earlier mobility levels despite occasional upticks in recent years. For them, the impact of the recession in terms of delayed marriage, home buying, and childbearing appears to continue—even as the economy has heated up.

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Migration magnets for young adults are often havens for educated millennials

Despite slowed migration rates, young adults still comprise a substantial number of movers as members of the large millennial generation have filled their ranks. This raises the question: Which places are attracting the most young adults? Map 1 and Table A (download here) display the major metropolitan areas with the highest and lowest annual net migration from elsewhere in the U.S. over the 2012-2017 period.

Map 1

Seven metropolitan areas, Houston; Denver; Dallas; Seattle; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Portland, Ore. exhibited annual net migration gains for young adults that exceeded 7,000. In four of the seven (Denver, Seattle, Austin, and Portland), college graduates comprised more than two-fifths of their older millennial populations. This is the case for 10 of the top 20 young adult migration gainers, which included San Francisco where 55 percent of older millennials held college degrees.

Another feature of young adult migration magnets is their location in the South and West “Sun Belt” region where all except three of the top 20 magnets are located. (Those three—Minneapolis-St. Paul, Columbus, and Kansas City—are among the most highly educated Midwest areas for millennials.) Half of all states exhibited young adult migration gains from 2012 to 2017, 18 of which—led by Texas, Washington, and Colorado—are located in the Sun Belt (download Table A).

These recent young adult metro area magnets differ only slightly from magnets of the recession/post-recession period from 2007 to 2012 when Washington, D.C. rather than Dallas appeared among the top five (see Table 1). However, the sizes of recent metropolitan migration gains are generally larger than in the previous period. For example, the average annual gain for Houston rose from 9,981 in 2007-2012 to 14,767 in 2012-2017. Among the 34 major metropolitan areas that gained young adult migrants from 2012 to 2017, all but three showed higher gains than during the previous five years.

Table 1

Still, the migration magnets for both of these periods differ sharply from those of the pre-recession period, 2004 to 2007. Then, young adult migration rates were substantially higher and, with housing and job markets more flush, young adults moved to more “suburban” and homeownership-friendly metros like Riverside, Calif. and Phoenix. Migration to the Southeast was also greater: metros like Atlanta and Charlotte were listed among the top five.

It is also the case that the volume of movement from young adult “out-migration  metros,” including costly areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, shifted over time—registering the highest negative numbers during the mobile pre-recession years, slowing down as the recession hit, and increasing somewhat during the 2012-2017 period.Back to top

Senior migration magnets reflect more traditional retirement destinations 

While seniors registered lower migration rates than young adults, a number of major metropolitan areas were magnets for seniors who did move. As shown on Map 2 and Table B (download here), senior migrant gainers in 2012-2017 were heavily represented in the Sun Belt, although, compared with young adult magnets, they are not as dispersed across the country. Just 20 of the nation’s major metropolitan areas exhibited positive gains in senior migration. Moreover, none of the top five senior magnets overlapped with top five young adult magnets. In fact, several metros that gained young adult migrants—such as Seattle and San Francisco—registered a net out-migration of seniors.

Map 2Table 2

Phoenix leads all gainers with an annual senior net migration exceeding 18,000 followed by Tampa, Fla.; Riverside, Las Vegas, and Jacksonville, Fla. Arizona metro Tucson ranked sixth and Florida metros Orlando and Miami ranked seventh and ninth. The fact that New York and Los Angeles showed the greatest senior migration losses suggests that there are sizeable senior migration flows from New York to Florida, and between Los Angeles to nearby western areas. Climate and the relative costs of living may be important motivators for these flows. Traditional retirement states, Florida and Arizona, are the largest senior migration gainers while New York and California are the greatest decliners (download Table B).

There have been changes in the top senior gainers over time, though Phoenix ranked number one both prior to and since the recession. The changes reflect migration shifts which tamped down senior movement to parts of the Sun Belt after 2007. Among migration magnets, Atlanta ranked second in 2004-2007, fifth in 2007-2012, and then dropped to 18th in 2012-2017. Dallas and Houston also dropped considerably in rank from 2007 to 2017; and many of the highly ranked senior magnets showed lower gains after 2007, with some uptick in the most recent period.

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Post-recession migration trends continue

The new Census Bureau migration data reveal a continued post-recession shift in the migration of young adults and seniors. Not only have migration rates slowed but the destinations of both groups have changed. Today’s young adults, now encompassing those in the prime millennial ages, show a penchant for “educated places”—including Denver and Seattle—as well as more affordable areas like Minneapolis and Kansas City with pre-recession hot spots like Riverside, Phoenix, and Atlanta showing reduced appeal. While they are still leaving the high cost of living on the coasts, young adults are spreading out more broadly across the country.

Today’s senior population, now engulfing more of the baby boomer generation than before the recession, are more selective in their destinations, heavily located in Arizona and Florida. They too continue to leave the nation’s pricey metro areas, even some areas that are attracting young adults.

Clearly today’s young adult millennials and baby boom enriched seniors do not mimic each other. Millennials are more mobile than their elders and more apt to shift with changing opportunities, particularly to areas with knowledge based economies. In contrast, those seniors who do move are zeroing in on a smaller set of exclusively Sun Belt destinations that have long been associated with retirees, warm climates and recreation. While millennials and baby boomers are America’s largest generations, they are following quite different post-recession migration paths.

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  • Footnotes
    1. These three periods were selected to be consistent with available American Community Survey (ACS) data for movers during the following timeframes: the three year period, 2004-2007 (based on the “residence one year ago” migration data from the 3 year 2005-2007 ACS); the five year period 2007-2012 (from the 5-year 2008-2012 ACS); and the five year period 2012-2017 (from the 5 year 2013-2017 ACS).
    2. It should be noted that these net out-migration statistics do not necessary indicate a young adult (or senior) population loss for an area because this out-migration of U.S. migrants could be countered by immigrants from abroad, or by the “aging” of a larger population into the 25-34 age group (or 55+ age group) during this period.