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The Changing Demographics of Naperville


Judith Brodhead, who in addition to her work as an Associate Professor of English and the Coordinator of Cultural Events at North Central College, teaches in their Urban and Suburban Studies program. She has been researching the topic of "Millennials and Naperville" and presented this past June at an Urban and Suburban Studies conference in Arlington, VA, at George Mason University. Here she shares her research and thoughts on Understanding Millennials and A Challenge for the Suburbs in connection to Naperville's future planning.

Understanding Millennials

Naperville Millennials Assuming that Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995) think quite differently about where to work and where to live, employers everywhere are wondering where the generation that is now in their early twenties through their mid-thirties, and the one that is now in college will want to live and work. 


The choices Millennials and Generation Z’ers (those born after 1995) will make – whether to rent apartments in cities or buy houses, whether to drive or use public transportation and ZipCars (or even if their cars will drive them), whether they will be willing to work in suburbs or will insist on an urban setting, whether they shop almost exclusively online or at brick and mortar stores – all of these are questions that cities and suburbs are starting to face as they do their planning for the next twenty-five years. 


For instance: What kinds of residential building should be encouraged or discouraged? What will property owners do with existing, perhaps outmoded, office buildings? What kinds of variances should cities allow for existing single-family housing? Should Naperville allow “Millennial Flats” or “Granny Flats”? How many parking decks does a 21st Century boomburb really need? Can a city rely on retail spending for more than a quarter of its revenue when taxes are not collected from online sales, or when a streamlined sales tax (as is the case for Amazon sales in Illinois) extends only to the state coffers and not to municipalities? From 2014 through 2016 the State of Illinois governor and legislature have been in a prolonged stalemate about the state budget that provides the kind of uncertainty that makes municipalities and potential investors in businesses nervous.


A Challenge for the Suburbs

Brodhead at India Day Parade in NapervilleNaperville, an urbanized suburb in which about 147,000 people live, prides itself on being a job destination as well as a residential suburb of Chicago. It actually has more jobs – currently about 70,000 – than it does residential units, which numbered 52,270 in 2010. But a few disturbing trends have emerged for suburbs all over the country within the past few years. Locally, Office Max, which was headquartered in Naperville, merged with Office Depot, but despite some serious discussion that reached the governor’s office in Illinois (and no doubt in Florida), Office Depot’s CEO emerged as the CEO of the combined companies, and the combined headquarters remained in Boca Raton, Office Depot’s home base. (Since then, Staples, the office supply giant, has attempted to buy Office Depot, but has been thwarted by the Federal Trade Commission and a ruling in a federal case.) 


In another instance, ConAgra moved into town, and then shifted its 400 jobs to Chicago in 2015. The western Chicago suburbs have recently been rocked by the news that McDonald’s will sell its 150 acres in suburban Oak Brook and move into Harpo Studios (formerly the home of Oprah Winfrey’s television show) in Chicago’s trendy meatpacking district, now home to dozens of millennial-friendly restaurants and clubs.  Notably, McDonald’s is not buying the Chicago property, nor will they own the new building they will commission after the existing buildings on the lot are removed. The McDonald’s property in Oak Brook is spread around various locations, including its corporate headquarters and Hamburger University, where McDonald’s employees from around the country come to train. 


This disruption, where a large corporation moves its location to a major city, is surely a shift, and not exclusive to Chicago. Of course, if an employer moves to the city but suburban employees can adapt to that change by commuting by car or public transit, they can maintain these jobs in a way they cannot if the company moves out of state. (Sometimes in a move like this employees may be offered an opportunity to telecommute one or two days a week.) Naperville is fortunate to have two train stations, one shared with neighboring Aurora (a city even larger than Naperville) that can get commuters into the Chicago Loop in 35 to 45 minutes. But it’s widely assumed in the business community that these corporate moves are frequently also efforts to shed the expensive, suburban Baby Boomer (or even Generation X) employees and pick up younger, less highly-paid Millennial workers who may already live in the city. For municipalities, it means that these corporate office buildings left behind in the suburbs will need new tenants, and some may have to be reconfigured to make them more attractive to new businesses and new employees. Some of these changes occur because products that used to be made in the U.S. are now made overseas, some because of massive and rapid technological changes, some because of global shifts.

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