Are millennials really leaving Vancouver?

One economist says no, while a Bloomberg story says yes—so which is it?

April 26, 2016

By Trevor Melanson

Are millennials leaving Vancouver or aren’t they? On Friday, the Financial Post ran a story citing the B.C. Real Estate Association’s chief economist, Cameron Muir, who argued that, no, actually, millennials are not leaving Vancouver in droves—despite the fact that a Bloomberg story published in March suggested they were. In fact, he said, “millennials are being attracted to the City of Vancouver and the region, not retreating from it.”

Muir, of course, has a clear conflict of interest: he works for the BCREA, which wants people to quite literally buy into Vancouver. But what matters, ultimately, is whether or not he’s right, so let’s take a look at his data. Muir compared the number of 20-to-34-year-olds living in Vancouver between 2005 and 2015 with the number of 20-to-34-year-olds living in the city between 1995 and 2005. And what he found, he said, was that the percentage of people in that age range grew more this past decade (9.5 percent) than it did in the decade previous (3.5 percent). “Growth in this age group over the past 10 years has been so strong that they are now the most populous age cohort in the city by a wide margin,” he told the Post.

But should this really come as a surprise? Millennials are the largest generation in our country’s history—as well as in the Canadian workforce. To not see an uptick in that age range as millennials entered it would be truly astonishing. The biggest problem with Muir’s data, though, may not be the date range so much as how he’s decided to measure things: very generally. He doesn’t, in other words, account for immigration. Like Toronto, Vancouver is—and probably always will be—a landing strip for new immigrants to Canada. Not only has immigration been high in recent years, in 2013 the Conservative government changed the entry-granting points system to greatly favour younger applicants, particularly those under 35. Offsetting a problem with changes to immigration, however, isn’t the same as fixing it. Put another way, you can pour more water into a leaking bucket, but that doesn’t change the fact that the bucket is leaking.

So, how do we measure whether or not millennials are really leaving this city? Well, we can look at interprovincial migration—that is, the number of people moving into or out of Vancouver from or to other provinces—and we can look at intraprovincial migration, which is the same thing but within B.C. Do those figures, which were provided by Statistics Canada, support Muir’s conclusion that Vancouver is a magnet for millennials? Hardly. The first chart below compares interprovincial migration, which may be the most relevant metric: it represents a loss of young people to Toronto and Calgary, not just Abbotsford or Victoria. And just look at those last five years.

millennialschart1

And below is the intraprovincial data, which is what the Bloomberg story cited. There is an obvious dip in intraprovincial migration in 2007 and 2008 (it could be recession-related, but I can’t be sure), but like with the data above, the numbers have indeed been declining over the last five years.

millennialschart2

One caveat: the age range I used is 20 to 30, as opposed to Muir’s, which is 20 to 34. Migration slows after 30 presumably because people are more likely to get married, have kids, or at least be in a serious relationship. But when people are at their most mobile, I think the trajectory speaks for itself. As for why fewer young people are coming to Vancouver and more of them are leaving? Astronomical housing costs are certainly a factor, but they’re not the only one. Keep an eye out for the June issue of Vancouver Magazine for an in-depth look into this increasingly important issue.

Follow @trevormelanson

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