Joel Kotkin, the Livability Interview

We talk about one thing he and Richard Florida agree on

By Matt Carmichael on November 21, 2014 at 9:00 am CST

Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict

Joel Kotkin has been called a lot of things. Often, he’s held up in the press and urbanist circles as a sort of suburban piñata and a foil to people like Richard Florida. He acknowledges that he is often outnumbered in the fight. I, for one, don’t choose sides in this debate because I think in a lot of ways Kotkin and Florida are often talking about the same issues just framing the conversation differently. Kotkin sits on our advisory board , and we work with the Martin Prosperity Institute on our Best Places to Live list.

Much of Florida’s current work is focused on inequality and the idea of the “divided city.” Likewise, Kotkin’s latest book, The New Class Conflict focuses on the challenges facing today’s middle class and the bleak outlook for our society as a whole if today’s inequality is allowed to continue its out-of-control spiraling. Kotkin chatted with Livability ( again ) about the new book, generational differences, the conflict between city and suburbs, and the conflict between his work and the work of other urban theorists.

Livability: I want to start taking umbrage with your discussion of how disadvantaged (to put it nicely) the Millennial generation is. Yes, they came into the job market at a really bad time, but at least they didn’t own anything like houses yet, so they aren’t stuck with underwater mortgages. As a Gen-Xer, I think we have it way worse.

Kotkin: One of the reasons we focus on Millennials and Boomers is that these are very large populations. The Xers are a small generation, so their imprint is much smaller. I think the early Xers are probably in pretty good shape. The younger Xers are pretty screwed. If you’re 45 and you bought your house and started your family 15 years ago – 15 years ago wasn’t that bad. If you started your household in 2005 and 2006, you’re really kind of [disadvantaged].

Livability: Related to that, it would make sense that Gen Xers are behind the recent baby boom in cities.

Kotkin: If you look at where the 5-year-old to 14-year-old population is, it’s definitely shrunk in the cities compared to other parts of the country. Most of the baby boom that you’d have in a lot of these cities is immigrants. They might be stuck more. They came, they assumed they would be able to move to the suburbs, but then they didn’t and then they had kids. They’re more likely to have kids under tough circumstances than more middle-class Millennials and Xers. The second or third kid is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The group that is most likely to leave the city is working lower-middle class, which is heavily minority. They’re the least likely to have done well in this economy. Many of them are going to go the suburbs or areas where the cost of living is lower and economic opportunities are greater.

Livability: How did this all change so quickly?

Kotkin: Globalization reduced certain kinds of opportunities. Technology removed lots of jobs. The tax system has really helped the wealthy. If incomes are falling and housing prices are going up, that’s’ the worst of all worlds for the middle class.

What’s happened is that it’s not any harder for the middle class, but it’s particularly hard for middle-class families, and if that’s case, society has pretty serious trouble. What happens after that? You wind up with all these people who have never had kids who are going to be dependent on the state for a lot of things. They’re not going to be able to depend on their kids for support.

Livability: As we have fewer families and more single-person households, how do suburbs need to change?

Kotkin: First of all, there are still going to be an awful lot of families. Immigrants are overwhelmingly family-oriented, and they are a fast-growing group. Where the suburbs help is they provide a decent amount of housing at any price than you can get in the city. The big change in suburbs is going to be meeting the needs of the senior population who is increasingly staying home. The suburbs weren’t really built for dealing with the elderly. Suburbs are going to have to accommodate single people and people without kids and people in their 30s.

I don’t think that making suburbs more dense is necessarily the right thing. Talk about purgatory. If you’re going to have density, you want the urban amenities: You want a good transit system. You want stuff you can walk to. To build high density housing 30 miles from Chicago is probably not the best idea. You’ll have the disadvantage of having people living above you and below you, but you don’t have the advantages of being in the city.

Livability: Do you think you’re unfairly pigeon-holed as “the suburbs guy?”

Kotkin: I think that my critics who’s own animus towards suburbs lead them to think I have an animus towards cities, which I don’t. I just think that cities are really great for certain people at certain parts of their lives, and for most people not so great when they get older, and if you are not wealthy, it’s very hard to live decently. So, of course, people move to places where they can afford to live.

What I hope is that [Florida] and I collectively, even if we don’t work together, have changed the debate to be a debate about people rather than a debate about things. I think if we’ve accomplished that, that’s something we could be reasonably happy about.”

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

Reader Comments

Use a Facebook account to comment. Subject to Facebook’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy . Your Facebook name, photo other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment.