Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution is arguably the leading demographer in the U.S.
Since population and demographic trends are often glacial, when he thinks What the Future, he’s thinking about the past. Because after the pandemic, the trends that we had been seeing will likely be the trends we start seeing again.
Matt Carmichael: Where was the U.S. population living pre-COVID-19 in terms of urban, rural and suburban geography, et cetera?
Bill Frey: For the first part of the 2000s, we had an unusually high level of growth for cities. Some of that had to do with the Great Recession and young people who had put off getting jobs, buying homes, getting married and all of that stuff. They often wound up in cities. There were a couple of unusual years where the hundred largest metropolitan areas or cities were growing faster than the suburbs. It was probably the first time since they invented the car, and there were all these stories about cities “coming back.” But as the economy picked up again, that changed. As the economy picked up in the 2010s, there was more suburbanization, there was more movement to the Sunbelt or the middle parts of the country.
Carmichael: Has the pandemic accelerated that change?
Frey: I must get a call a week about, “Is New York ever going to come back?” To the extent there have been those moves, I think a lot of them have been temporary. Then there’s also the kind of discussion about if people will ever go back to work in the office. It’s too soon to tell. I think in another year or two, when the vaccine comes out and people adjust, we’ll probably go back to similar migration patterns and population shifts. It may be that young people then will go back to cities and stay there for a while until things get better for them economically.
Carmichael: In terms of migration, before the pandemic started, we had hit historical lows. Why?
Frey: It’s a long-term pattern. In the postwar period, almost a fifth of the population moved every year. Most were local moves within counties. They were based on housing and family considerations. People move longer distances to get jobs. In the 1950s and ’60s, you had a much younger population; younger people move more than older people. There were usually a lot more renters and homeowners, and renters tend to move more than homeowners. Long-distance mobility decreased since the Great Recession due to the drying up of jobs. Economists say that there’s been more homogeneity among job markets over time, but I chalk it up at least recently to younger people still putting off major life decisions, even as the economy improved.
Carmichael: The lack of mobility seems counterintuitive. As you said, the job market is becoming more homogenous in terms of jobs being less clustered. Remote work is a greater part of the workforce. You would think that people could move more and make those choices based on the livability or the affordability of a city. But I guess we haven’t really seen that in the data.
Frey: Again, it’s the difference between long-distance and short-distance moves and the fact that you have more families that have more workers in them. That means that all of them would have to get new jobs. If you moved somewhere else back in the 1950s, it usually was only a male breadwinner.
Carmichael: In terms of the Millennials and the iGen coming in behind them, how much do you think their differences are generational and how much of that was life stage?
Frey: I think they’ve been under unusual circumstances. The first Millennial turned age 27 in the year 2007 at the beginning of the recession. The U.S. didn’t really start to straighten out economically for maybe another eight or nine years. It put them behind the eight ball. The iGen now have to cope with another set of issues. Every 10 years, whatever young generation is coming through at that time keeps getting hit by these different, bad, but equally catastrophic circumstances.
Carmichael: What will you look for in the data as it comes out the next year, two years, five years?
Frey: I’ll be looking at the population estimates at the county and metropolitan levels. Is there an accentuated movement away from some of these cities that have been suggested by these sorts of other data sources, like real estate people and moving companies and so forth? The other aspect of this is immigration. A lot of places such as big metropolitan areas like New York or Los Angeles aren’t growing as much anymore because we’ve had immigration restrictions and then the pandemic on top of that.
Carmichael: Do you think we’ll go back to the baseline trends we’ve been seeing, or do you think there’s potential for some lasting change?
Frey: I tend to be on the side that we’re going to go back to more where we’ve been before. There could be considerably more people working from home than we’ve known in the past, so that might change some migration patterns over time. I’m not of the school that big cities are going to be wanting for populations. Big cities that have been attractive before will come to be attractive again. It’s hard to know what’s going to go on in rural areas. People have been leaving the rural areas pretty much for the last two decades. Big parts of the Great Plains are not going to do any better in the future than they’ve done in the past.