Cities were once a place for families of all classes. The “basic custom” of the American city, wrote the urbanist Sam Bass Warner, was a “commitment to familialism.” Today’s cities, however, are decidedly not for children, or for families who want children. As the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, they are “entertainment machines” for the young, rich, and mostly childless. And this development has crucial implications—not only for the future of American cities, but also for the future of the U.S. economy and American politics.
The counties that make up Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia shed a combined 2 million domestic residents from 2010 to 2018. For many years, these cities’ main source of population growth hasn’t been babies or even college graduates; it’s been immigrants. But like an archipelago of Ellis Islands, Manhattan and other wealthy downtown areas have become mere gateways into America and the labor force—“a temporary portal,” in the words of E. J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “The woman from Slovakia comes to Queens, lives in her second cousin’s basement, gets her feet on the ground, and gets a better apartment in West Orange, New Jersey,” he said. Or a 20-something from North Dakota moves to Chicago after school, works at a consultancy for a few years, finds a partner, and moves to Missoula.
But if big cities are shedding people, they’re growing in other ways—specifically, in wealth and workism. The richest 25 metro areas now account for more than half of the U.S. economy, according to an Axios analysis of government data. Rich cities particularly specialize in the new tech economy: Just five counties account for about half of the nation’s internet and web-portal jobs. Toiling to build this metropolitan wealth are young college graduates, many of them childless or without school-age children; that is, workers who are sufficiently unattached to family life that they can pour their lives into their careers.
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