We are plagued with zombie factoids. You can kill them over and over again with evidence of their falsehood, but they keep resurrecting and coming back because they fit prevalent narratives.
The “fleeing millennial” is one of Vancouver’s key zombie factoids. The basic idea is that the city is getting so expensive that it’s driving out millennials. Vancouver is sacrificing its own future! The detritus of uneaten avocado toast will ruin our tidy streets! (I kid, that’s what seagulls are for). The problem with this factoid is that it’s false. I’ve previously attempted to kill this idea here, here, here, and here. But it keeps coming back. It’s a zombie; undead and on the lookout for brains to eat.
As factoids go, this one highlights a real and pressing problem: the local unaffordability of housing. But it does so in a misleading and harmful fashion. It’s misleading because there is NO data anywhere suggesting that we’re selectively losing people in the age groups reasonably corresponding to millennials. It’s harmful because every time it re-appears, the fine print reveals that it necessarily valorizes some millennials over others.
The most recent resurrection of the fleeing millennial zombie factoid arrives via the folks at Better Dwelling, running their headline: See Ya! Local Millennials Are Abandoning Toronto and Vancouver. The valorization of a particular set of millennials receives a nod in the headline: we’re dealing with “local” millennials. Within the body of the piece, this is fleshed out: we’re dealing with intraprovincial migration patterns, between Metro Vancouver and other parts of BC, and between Metro Toronto and other parts of Ontario. Intraprovincial migration leaves out international immigration and interprovincial migration, the two other main components of migration overall (as described by Statistics Canada). Given that Toronto and Vancouver are Canada’s premier gateway cities, this is a pretty big oversight! Immigrants flood into these cities, with some staying while others move on to other parts of Canada.
I’ll come back to this problem, but let’s start with Better Dwelling’s focus, on intraprovincial migration. Can I replicate their findings drawing upon Statistics Canada components of population change data (StatCan 051-0057)? Nope.
I can get the same pattern, but not the same numbers. Here’s what I get looking at intraprovincial migration (summing net change for the years and age groups covered and adding the historical context from 2002-2007 just because it’s there!) This worries me a bit, and I asked Better Dwelling for clarification, but they have yet to respond (I also checked my numbers with the ever-helpful Jens over at MountainMath, who also couldn’t reproduce Better Dwelling’s numbers).
At any rate, the pattern is the same. But the pattern is misleading. After all, we’re only looking at a single component of migration. What happens if we add them all in?
Wow. That looks quite different! If anything, net migration from millennials (age 20-34) is soaring to all new heights in the latest five year period estimation. It’s just that intraprovincial migration has a slight drag on this pattern (compared to a more steady drag across other age groups). What to make of this?
As a gateway city, Vancouver’s population growth is driven first and foremost by international migration. Both interprovincial and intraprovincial migration play a role at the margins. We are definitely not losing millennials. But what about the claim that we’re losing “local” millennials? It’s a weird claim. It’s likely the case that many of the millennials showing up as international migrants in one period might later show up as intraprovincial or intraprovincial migrants in another. Ideally that’s what gateway cities do: take in huge numbers of migrants, keep some, and send others toward the broader set of communities in the province (and the rest of Canada) looking for workers and growth. Personally, I happen to know at least one Chinese immigrant to Vancouver now working and residing in Kelowna. It might be fun to break down intraprovincial migration by place of birth or the like, but absent that kind of careful analysis there’s no reason to imagine intraprovincial migration patterns identify “locals” or are uniquely informative about the state of millennials in Vancouver or Toronto.
As a methodological aside, it also feels a little odd to sum up the components of growth from Statistics Canada models in the time periods specified without acknowledging that they’re calibrated to the census years (2001, 2006, 2011, 2016). So 2012-2017 provides an estimated breakdown of components of change drawn from the combination of a 2011-2016 comparison with various sources of administrative data. The 2016-2017 estimations are especially subject to change! Still, it’s neat to see how Stats Can does this work. As a bonus, here’s what you get in terms of Statistics Canada’s model of population change by age group in Metro Vancouver moving forward from the the Census year (2016) to the next (2017), but setting births aside.
What really jumps out is the contribution non-permanent residents are making! They don’t show up in net migration figures here, but wow! Look at how much they’re contributing to growth, especially in the late teens. See the CMHC’s write-up about the effects non-permanent residents might be having on housing demand, but keep in mind that many will transform (like I did) into permanent residents.
And in the meantime: watch out for zombies! Don’t let them near your brains!
[UPDATE: May 25th, 2018. This blog post was combined with a couple of others in its own The Tyee article! No, Vancouver Is Not Losing Its Millennials. Thanks to awesome local reporter Christopher Cheung for reaching out and pulling that together. After the Tyee piece went up, I’m told that Better Dwelling contacted them to report that they’d used the CANSIM table 051-0060 rather than CANSIM 051-0057, as above. This seems to explain the disjuncture in specific numbers, which is good! But the problems with ignoring interprovincial and international migration of millennials remain. Also, CANSIM 051-0060 covers a HUGE amount of territory. Rather than just looking at Metro Vancouver, it looks at an economic region defined as the “Lower Mainland-Southwest, British Columbia.” Unlike a metro regions, which build their integrity largely around daily commute-sheds, economic regions seem to work more like ways of dividing up the entire country into manageable, if somewhat arbitrary, contiguously defined units. So the economic region of “Lower Mainland-Southwest” combines the Census Divisions of Greater Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, the Sunshine Coast, and Squamish-Lillooet. Full Statistics Canada map here (it’s big!). The Immigration Settlement and Integration Program (ISIP) has put up a smaller map illustrating the economic regions of BC which I borrow below, showing what nice things you can do when you work to recognize and welcome international immigrants!]