The Millennials are learning a new geography…thanks to technology.
Technology encouraged the Baby Boomers to settle in far-flung places: the suburbs exploded after WWII as cars became more affordable, ubiquitous, and reliable. Now, technology is on the move again, and so are people.
For the first time since the 1920s, growth in US cities outpaces growth outside of them. It is well documented that Millennials are opting to live in urban areas over the suburbs and rural communities. According to Nielsen polling, sixty-two percent of Millennials prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices.
TECHNOLOGY AT THE HEART
Technology is at the heart of these changing tastes. The desirability of car travel has tarnished as both commute trips and errands become long and stressful. Car trips are also energy intensive. Meanwhile, the technology of cyberspace is growing…and to coin a cliché, coming soon to a theatre near you. Cyberspace brings the contrasting trends to go big and to go small, simultaneously. The “big” is Urban. The small is situated in neighborhood Starbuck’s like places. In addition to serving up coffee, Starbucks has created spaces where people can get out and co-mingle, WiFi enabled. The “Starbucks Effect” satisfies a basic need for individuals to share a public space. Shades of sociability are gained for the price (and calories) of a frappucino.
GO BIG…GO SMALL… SIMULTANEOUSLY
The Starbucks Effects matters: many digital workers work as independent contractors, doing things like updating websites, writing code, and tweeking their online pages and identities. Many times the work will involve creating a buzz and interaction, but through the impersonal, and silent channels of the Internet. Cyberworkers need to find outside environments that are proximate, but populated with diverse ideas and people.
Meanwhile, for businesses that employ these digital workers, the urban environment seems to be more productive for them than the office-parks and suburbs of the twentieth century. They are able to recruit younger, better trained workers, who like the city (a tautology). Urban settings are also said to foster agglomeration effects, and the speed of innovation. Urban economists who study modern trends say that density facilitates contact between smart people and fosters innovation. An interesting data point comes from the physicists Bettencourt and West and cited in the NYT. When the population of a city doubles, there is an increase of 15 to 20 percent in human interaction. That might explain why innovations grow exponentially, and why our personal social networks become more valuable and useful when they are urban based.
WHERE THE HIGHWAYS WENT AND WROUGHT
One of the ironies of the past generation is that the passion for the car, a twentieth century invention, led U.S. cities, at least temporarily, to unravel and become economically and socially dim. Inner city areas were blighted as the Interstate Highway network segmented and cut residential blocks. Jane Jacobs, the planner, was an advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, at the expense of efficient highways. Her point was that the neighborhoods facilitated the free flow of information between city residents and that these exchanges were essential human needs. When the highways came, the sociability left.
Starbucks may have been one of the first corporate entities to identify this shortcoming and capitalize upon it by selling friendly Wifi space, along with a frappucino. Their undoing may be Millennial clients who favor more “local” outfits, such as Blue Bottle Coffee. But, then, the preference for Blue Bottle might give way to the next shop, one opened by a more local, next-door entrepreneur/owner. The point is that Millennials are trying to forge a sense of place and connectivity, and they are going to reach this place in a manner quite unlike their parents- it is not in the car.