What Do Millennials Really Want? (And Where Wisconsin Fits In)

By EMILY JASHINSKY | Nov. 6, 2014

By now, there’s enough mythology surrounding the patterns and trends exhibited by the millennial generation to overwhelm any researcher. We’re studied like enigmatic zoo creatures, prodded at by curious baby boomers who desperately want to define our interests and predict our futures.

In many ways this is a worthwhile exercise. Like any generation, as millennials come of age, they will shape our economy and impact the political health of the nation. Still, the glut of research on the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s is filled with conflicting studies and puzzling poll results.

For instance, many economists believe the debt-burdened, urban-centric millennial generation will have a seriously negative impact on the housing market. But, as a new study found, 84% of millennials either plan to own or already own their own homes. The study, released in September by the Demand Institute, states, “As millennials start families, they will head for the suburbs. This runs counter to common portrayals of millennials as quintessential city-dwellers.”

Summarizing the authors’ findings, the study continues, “While some millennials aspire to a more urban lifestyle, the larger part of the cohort will seek benefits typical of the suburbs — more space, safer streets and better schools. What’s more, most millennials are fine being a short drive — rather than walking distance — from grocery stores, restaurants and the like.”

Even the study’s authors admit that these findings seem to contradict popular mythology surrounding the behavior of millennials. But the Demand Institute, operated jointly by the Conference Board and Nielsen, is a renowned think tank with an impressive research resume. These findings are not to be taken lightly.

Fortunately for us in Wisconsin, the study constitutes great news — at least for our state’s capital. Livability.com recently ranked Madison No. 1 on its list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live. The list focuses on cities and towns with populations of 20,000 to 350,000. Livability.com describes Madison as follows: “Both a capitol city and a hip college town, Madison provides residents with affordable housing, great schools, excellent health care and a wide range of recreational activities and entertainment options.”

This good news only gets better. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of the country’s population is between 20 and 34 years of age. While the hype about millennials’ favorite cities has centered on places like Denver, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Madison has quietly soared above the pack. The 20-34 year old demo accounts for approximately 28% of Denver’s population, 30.5% of D.C.’s and 25% of LA’s. In Madison, this number is 34%. While all of these cities’ shares of 20-34 year olds beat the national average (20%), Madison is clearly ahead of its peers.

Furthermore, Livability’s Top 100 list singles out two other Wisconsin cities, Eau Claire and La Crosse, which were ranked 69th and 95th respectively. Nearly 31% of Eau Claire’s population and almost 32% of La Crosse’s fall into the 20-34 year old demographic. It’s striking to see how these smaller Wisconsin cities are pulling ahead of the pack as well.

Even Minneapolis, another Midwestern city that has attracted national attention for its appeal to millennials, comes in at just under 32%, putting Eau Claire and La Crosse in the same neighborhood and Madison clearly ahead.

Not only is Madison a young city, it’s an educated one. Nearly 46% of Madison’s 25+ population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. Comparatively, this number is only 26% for the state as a whole. Furthermore, the most recent census data put Wisconsin’s per capita income at $27,426. Madison’s is nearly $4,000 higher at $31,105. This number is $19,199 in Milwaukee.

Between the Demand Institute study and the Census Bureau numbers, Madison’s future looks brighter than most of us probably realized. Assuming millennials find the means to purchase homes (and Madison’s high per capita income figures suggest they will) and continue to seek out more affordable cities in which to settle down, our state’s economy could see a sizable boost from its capital city. And the highly educated status of Madison’s 25+ demographic bodes extremely well for this possibility.

Well-educated, ambitious millennials see a lot to like in Madison — and appear increasingly likely to put down roots. Hopefully this pattern will hold true in Wisconsin’s other millennial-heavy cities like Eau Claire and La Crosse as well.

Too bad the rest of the state doesn’t appear as alluring.

Emily Jashinsky of Delafield attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and was an intern at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in the summer of 2014. This column reflects her personal opinion.