Conservative think tanks and business associations know that they can always plant a bogus survey or an opinion piece by a bought-and-sold expert in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. That is, as long as the study supports unregulated growth based on fossil fuels and giving the biggest rewards to large corporate and banking interests.
The latest proof that the Journal prints all the news that fits with its rightwing ideology is “Many Millennials Yearn for Suburban Homes,” which touts a shoddy survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) claiming to prove that 66% of the Millennial generation wants to live in the suburbs. The study results go counter to the common belief, backed by a myriad of attitudinal studies, that a large number of Millennials prefer city life, in part because they are rejecting private ownership of cars as environmentally incorrect.
This preference for the urban experience is one of the major ways that experts say Millennials differ from their predecessors, Generation X and the Baby Boomers. The Journal article holds up the survey as proof that Millennials really want more room and therefore pine for the car-and-mall-focused suburban life.
But as it turns out, the NAHB survey does nothing more than exemplify that—as either Mark Twain or Samuel Butler once said—“figures never lie, but liars figure.”
The NAHB mendacious use of numbers comes in how it defines the Millennial generation. It takes responses from 1,506 people born since 1977. The main reason to be suspicious that NAHB cooked the books is that it is impossible to find anybody who says the Millennial generation started in 1977. Most citations I found on the Internet identify 1982 as the start year for Millennial births. A Newsweek article of a few years back used 1989 as the start date and Pew Research generally goes with 1981. But virtually everyone else says it’s 1982. My own analysis of a line chart of total births against the average growth rate concludes that we should start counting Millennials in 1984 or 1986. But no expert I could find uses 1977.
The time between 1977 and 1982 is five years, or one quarter of the approximately 20 years that sociologists and demographers tend to view as defining Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials. We have no idea how many of the 1,506 surveyed were born before 1982 and therefore should probably not be counted as Millennials.
The other problem with the study is that the NAHB only asked about city versus suburbs to people who had first answered that they had either purchased a home in the last three years or intend to within the next three years. Eliminating everyone else almost by definition front-loads the age of the respondents, which in this case means that most of them were born too early to really be called Millennials. According to U.S. Census figures, for each of the past 25 years many more people aged 35-39 own homes than those aged 30-34; those aged 25-29—the heart of the Millennial generation—are almost half as likely to own a home than the 35-39-year-olds. In others words, adding five years worth of Gen X-ers to the study universe has a dramatic effect on the results, overestimating the desire of Millennials to live in the suburbs. Moreover, rejecting anyone who doesn’t own or plan to own a home in all likelihood skews the universe of respondents even further.
The Journal never addresses the issue of what years constitute Millennial births, but it does finally admit that selecting only those who own or will soon buy a home makes the survey unreliable. But the writer waits until the tenth paragraph to do so, in effect burying the information.
We know why NAHB would construct and distribute such a transparently invalid survey. It’s less expensive to build homes in the suburbs, and that’s where most new homes are built.
But why would the Journal publish such dreck?
The answer is that the survey fits into it’s the Journal ideology in several ways: The Wall Street Journal believes that local economic policy should benefit developers, banks and corporations, and the study certainly shores up those interests.
But just as important, the Journal hates cities and what cities stand for. The Journal is a proponent of private property, private space and private solutions to social problems. The essence of the urban environment is the public space. Major cities need viable public transportation, whereas the Journal worships car culture and hates anything public. Cities thrive on cultural diversity, and the Journal loves the white bread, the middle brow and the middle of the road when it comes to cultural experiences. City voters are much more liberal than suburban voters. In short, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago represent everything that The Wall Street Journal and its owner Rupert Murdoch despise.