Are empty nesters flocking to downtown Chicago?

I’ve been hearing about what I call the “mythical empty-nester” for more than 30 years now.

At Wendell Cox counters an empty nester claim in a recent boosterish article by Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business.

Hinz notes that “empty nesters” are moving to the urban core. Yet this is not confirmed by the data. Between 2000 and 2010, the age cohort that was from 55 to 64 years old in 2000 dropped by 55 percent as a share of the population in the fast growing core census tracts of central Chicago. In contrast, in the city of Chicago overall, the loss was 25%, and the reduction was 24% in the entire metropolitan area … Our previous national research showed that the population losses in this cohort were the greatest in the core cities among the 51 major metropolitan areas.

The problem I have with Cox’s argument is its reliance on the relative size of the 55 to 64 cohort. Chicago’s downtown core may have seen a large influx of 65+ empty nesters relative to the increase in the 55 to 64 year-old cohort, and a large number of 55 to 64-year olds aging into the 65+ demographic during the past decade. It may also have seen a large migration of 55 to 64-year olds, and much greater growth in the younger population.

Another of Cox’s arguments is less questionable:

The overwhelming reality of metropolitan growth in Chicago, however, is that the outer suburbs and exurbs continue to capture virtually all growth. Overall, areas outside 20 miles from the core of Chicago gained 573,000 residents between 2000 and 2010. By contrast, the entire metropolitan area gained only 362,000 residents. As a result, these outer suburbs and exurbs accounted for 158% of the Chicago metropolitan area’s population growth between 2000 and 2010.

Note to newgeography bashers: Your ad hominem attacks on Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin have frequently been tedious, pointless and surpassingly lame. Please, for a change, offer data that refutes the argument. Some of you need to be reminded that sarcasm is not an argument, nor is it data.


  • the urban politician 5 years

    My refute is simple:

    Greg Hinz never stated that the exurbs weren’t growing. In fact, only an idiot would state that people don’t continue to buy homes in the suburbs/exurbs.

    All he is documenting is a very sharp and notable rise of central Chicago as a place to live, work, and play, and it is a trend that shows no sign of abating. Perhaps it is Wendell Cox who has a problem with that? To me, I think the city and suburbs both have things to offer, and why not celebrate them both for what they are?

  • tup,

    Hinz spilled a lot of ink setting up a city vs suburbs meme rather than simply touting the city core’s growth:

    “After decades of watching the suburbs boom (often at the city’s expense), Chicago now is outperforming the surrounding area by almost any measure—jobs, income, retail sales and residential property values, to name a few—despite the loss of 200,000 people in the 2010 census.”

    You’ll find no disagreement here with your argument for celebrating both Chicago and its suburbs for their respective strengths.

  • Ben L 5 years

    I’m glad you spotted the error in reasoning in the first paragraph you pulled. That was the first thing that caught my eye when I read this on newgeography too.

    My other quibble with the article is that Cox builds his rebuttal to the Hinz thesis entirely on population numbers. Hinz (rightly, in my opinion) appears to define the success of a place not only by its population growth, but its sales growth, property values, etc. Cox offers a very incomplete response to Hinz’s assertion. Surely Cox defines a place’s success by more than just a simple accounting of the number of warm bodies in it?

    Perhaps Cox will return to this issue with additional analysis about the change in property values, job growth, and other factors named by Hinz to paint a fuller picture of city vs. suburbs. I sure hope so! I have previously expressed my frustration on this site with newgeography’s fixation on population numbers without bringing wages/sales/home values into the conversation.

  • the urban politician 5 years


    Perhaps Greg did take a small shot at the suburbs with that language, sure. But for the most part, in this particular case I think it is Wendell Cox who comes across sounding a bit more polarized and, frankly, desperate. For a long time Cox has revealed his biases here in the same way that hard core urbanists who despise the suburbs do, and I find both types rather meaningless to have discussions with.

    Perhaps it just ticks Cox off that the core of Chicago is booming, and he wants to find ways to undermine such an obvious fact supported by data. Well, keep on fighting I guess…

  • tup,

    I don’t read Cox as having any bias against Chicago.

    If anything, he skews his views to counter what I regard as the often silly arguments of the “hard core urbanists who despise the suburbs.”

  • Rob A. 5 years

    Ok, I have a comment to make. All the talk about the booming core… have any of you opened your eyes to see what’s going on, on West and South sides of the city’s core? I’m talking about (Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Albany Park, Garfield Park, West Loop, Near West side, United Center, Pilsen, West Town, UK Village, East Village, Lawndale, Little Village, Hyde Park andBronzeville.

    Pardon my expression but the “hippies” are producing in this city big time! Not sure where the money is coming from, be it crowd funding or whatever, but the West side and near South sides are booming with the most creative small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures.

    These creative-types are taking advantage of the blocks of ULTRA CHEAP store fronts. They’re invading these neighborhoods and turning them into really unique areas. The fastest I’ve ever seen it happen.

    This younger generation is not-so caught up with the identity of race and they’re spending time in many of the less privileged neighborhoods. Living and operating businesses. The younger generation does not think twice to live their dreams and open up shop in what most people 5 years ago “called” edgy neighborhoods. It’s no longer the core that’s booming. It may be on a different scale, one being less luxurious but none the less, these are operating businesses generating lots of revenue.

    This is a very exciting time for Chicago.

  • the urban politician 5 years

    Rob A.,

    Just caught your post now. Yes, I have indeed opened my eyes up to what is happening in these neighborhoods. First of all, I’m not sure why you chose that list of neighborhoods. Some are already pretty established and nice, while others are struggling. Still others, indeed, do seem to be on their way up or “gentrifying” if you will.

    However, I grow disappointed with how slowly (or in some cases, not at all) revitalization occurs in many of Chicago’s “next hot” neighborhoods. I’m glad that small businesses are thriving, but unfortunately for Chicago, all of the chocolate shops and hand-puppet shops in the world are not going to turn around a neighborhood. Cuteness and hipness can only go so far. I was with a realtor looking at property in Pilsen about a year ago. She was an older lady, and told me she recalled when 18th and Halsted was a haven for artists and hipsters back in the 1960’s.

    Fast forward 50 years, and little has changed. Pilsen is a nice neighborhood, but it sure hasn’t boomed with private investment and development. And that is exactly the final measure of whether a neighborhood has broken out of its malaise or not. Cookie shops and art dealers are fine and all, but unless you follow that up with REAL investment in the form of $$$, you are running on empty.

    Chicago needs more. It needs to attract capital, and not just to the north side or around the core. A feeling that a place is exciting and interesting is a great start, but to bridge the gap between that and a person’s willingness to actually relocate and open up their wallets are worlds apart. In much of New York that transformation has occurred, but for Chicago much of the city is a no man’s land for those with the means.